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Lawmakers urge DOJ to investigate treatment of communities of color in pandemic

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Elected officials from some of the nation's communities hardest-hit by COVID-19 are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the treatment of communities of color amid the pandemic that's disproportionately affected African Americans.

A group of several dozen lawmakers from communities including Detroit and New York came together to announce they have sent a letter Wednesday asking the Justice Department's civil rights division to hold local, state and federal leaders accountable for response efforts, including how hospital beds, testing and protective equipment have been deployed as well as transparency with virus data. 

Detroit Councilwoman Mary Sheffield speaks during a press conference at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, in Detroit, February 13, 2020, to announce a class action lawsuit against the city for the over assessment of home values for thousands of home owners.  (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

"We want to be clear, the virus itself does not discriminate," New York Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams said during an afternoon teleconference. "But at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that black and brown people have borne the brunt of this.

"We want to hold decision-makers accountable. We know that there could be a second wave coming. We want to make sure we are correcting errors," he added.

Among those joining the call Wednesday was Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, who noted African Americans make up about 14% of Michigan's population but account for 40% of the state's COVID-19 deaths. 

The trend has also played out nationally — one in three patients requiring hospitalization in the first month of the COVID-19 epidemic were African American, according to hospital data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sheffield said the pattern is being seen throughout the country and the virus outbreak has "unmasked deep disinvestment" and "systematic injustices."

"Now we are coming together and demanding solutions," she said. 

Michigan began reporting the race of COVID-19 patients and deaths on April 2, three weeks after the first two cases in the state were reported. 

Health experts warned that African Americans would be more susceptible to the most severe cases of the disease because of the predominance of underlying health conditions in the population. However, it was not widely predicted that blacks would be more likely to contract the virus and die in such disproportionate numbers.

Sheffield said she rejects the notion that pre-existing conditions are solely to blame for the increased number of African Americans being stricken with the virus. 

She noted the death last month of Detroit Department of Transportation bus driver Jason Hargrove after he complained in a social media video that a rider had openly coughed on him and that he and other drivers didn't have adequate protective gear or protocols to stem the potential risk of spread. 

African Americans, she said, have been denied testing, hospital admittance ... "and more importantly, an opportunity to live."

The city was among the first in the country to secure rapid testing kits to screen first responders, essential workers and the elderly. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan reached an agreement early in the outbreak with Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories to bring the 15-minute tests to Detroit.

In Detroit, roughly one in four workers living in the city are deemed "essential" and are working on the front lines, risking their lives to help keep critical services running, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Detroiters have been hit hard by the disease, accounting for 9,562 confirmed cases and a death toll of 1,128 as of Wednesday.

Detroit embarked on an aggressive effort to test nursing home residents and staff at dozens of facilities throughout the 139-square-mile city, and expects to soon roll out plans to test elderly Detroiters in other senior living complexes. 

The city created a regional testing site at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds. As of this week, about 25,000 people have been tested there. 

On the state level, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed a coronavirus task force last month to recommend ways to address the racial disparities in the occurrence of the disease. 

The task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, Michigan's first African-American lieutenant governor, is made up of leaders from across state government, as well as health care professionals from communities most affected by the virus. 

Eric Adams, president of the Office of the Brooklyn Borough, said the lawmakers are "going to seek the truth."

"This is important that we conduct this extremely thorough investigation," he said. "We owe it to the American public. We owe it to the people who lost their lives."

cferretti@detroitnews.com