How the COVID-19 pandemic exposed massive racial and social disparities in Michigan

Posted at 12:12 PM, Mar 09, 2021

(WXYZ) — The first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Michigan on March 10, 2020. One year and nearly 600,000 cases later, racial and social inequities have become painfully obvious.

The pandemic exposed massive health disparities, particularly among racial and ethnic minority groups in low-income communities.

According to a study from the University of Michigan, COVID-19 survivors who are Black had worse outcomes regarding access to care, recovery, and social and economic factors.

In Michigan, the disparities were revealed right at the start of the pandemic.

Michigan’s COVID-19 epicenter

In March 2020, the City of Detroit was considered to be the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan.

At the time, Detroit accounted for almost one-third of the state’s COVID-19 cases, despite making up less than 10 percent of the state’s population.

In a press conference in March, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said cases were surging in Detroit due to “economics.”

“Where you have generations of concentrated poverty and social determinants of health, when you have pandemics like this it is going to hit those places harder,” she said.

Data was beginning to show that COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting the African American community. In Detroit, the death toll doubled every two to three days at the onset of the pandemic.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan had sobering words for city residents as the death toll was climbing.

“We’re gonna lose a lot of our neighbors in the coming days,” he said in a news conference on April 7, 2020. “It's going to get worse before it gets better."

On April 20, Black residents represented 40% of the deaths in the state; African Americans make up 13.6% of the state’s population.

In response to the high cases and deaths in Detroit, the city began taking measures to bring the numbers down. Aggressive testing began at nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where cases were surging.

The city also announced a drive-thru testing site at the Michigan State Fairgrounds along with issuing testing requirements for grocery store employees.

On May 18, 2020, the City of Detroit reported no new deaths from COVID-19 — the first time since the pandemic began two months earlier — after a steady decline in new cases and deaths.

State of Michigan responds to COVID-19 health disparities

On April 20, 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order creating the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities.

Chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, the task force set out to study the causes of racial disparities in the impact of COVID-19 and recommended actions to address the disparities.

In August 2020, Gilchrist said the task force was “hard at work” to provide “real solutions” to the problem.

It directed the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to develop implicit bias training and declared racism as a public health crisis in Michigan.

Additionally, the state expanded drive-thru and walk-up testing.

“Each action that we’ve taken on the task force is thought to make immediate and long-term impact on communities,” Gilchrist said in an August press conference.

Additionally, the task force encouraged regions to create their own racial disparities task forces.

In September 2020, officials said cases and deaths were “significantly down” in the state’s Black population. At the time, Black residents accounted for 8.2% of cases and 9.9% of deaths, compared to 29.4% of cases and 40% of deaths in the early days of the pandemic.

The task force reported that it helped distribute large quantities of masks to the public and launched efforts targeted at communities of color. It also collaborated with regional racial disparity task forces and increased access to COVD-19 testing in communities of color.

The state said it took “swift actions” to address health inequities in place prior to the pandemic that were exacerbated by the virus.

“Access to testing and adequate resources to protect communities of color will continue to be a priority as we fight COVID-19,” Dr. Khaldun said in September.

Vaccines come to Michigan

On Dec. 15, 2020, Michigan hospitals began administering first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

However, Black communities have shown to be hesitant to receive the vaccine. A study from the University of Michigan found 67% of Black residents surveyed in Detroit opposed getting the vaccine, compared to 31% of white residents in opposition.

In an interview with 7 Action News, Rufus Bartell, president of the Independent Business Association, said the mistrust is “understandable” when considering the history of the Tuskegee Experiment.

The study was done by the government between 1932 and 1972. African American men were promised free health care and then, without their knowledge, studied to find out what happens when syphilis treatment is withheld.

“People are starting to make a distinction between things like the Tuskegee Experiment and this pandemic. This pandemic is a global situation that affects the whole human family. That is what we have to lean on when we talk to the African American community about the importance of fighting this disease,” Bartell said.

To date, more than 2.5 million vaccines have been distributed in the state; about 2.1 million doses have been administered.

However, as more vaccines doses are distributed throughout the state, data shows staggering disparities in race.

In Michigan, new data found that only 3.7% of those who were vaccinated are Black people, compared to nearly 42% who are white.

The state says it is taking steps to address these disparities.

In a press conference on Feb. 24, Lt. Gov. Gilchrist said the data makes it clear that the state needs to continue its efforts to get more communities of color vaccinated and “close the gap.”

“We have plans as a state to invest in ensuring to address disparities in vaccine uptake,” he said.

The state has created a new data entry tool that will allow providers to improve submission in race data of all vaccines administered. Every Michigander is encouraged to fill out the “race” section of forms they complete.

Officials say these problems are not going to go away overnight, but that they are committed to providing solutions.

“We will get this right,” Gilchrist said. “I want every person in the state to get their questions answered and concerns addressed, especially in communities of color.”

Additional Coronavirus information and resources:

View a global coronavirus tracker with data from Johns Hopkins University.

See complete coverage on our Coronavirus Continuing Coverage page.

Visit our The Rebound Detroit, a place where we are working to help people impacted financially from the coronavirus. We have all the information on everything available to help you through this crisis and how to access it.