Michigan's COVID-19 cases, deaths hit blacks disproportionately

Lansing — At least 40% of those killed by the novel coronavirus in Michigan so far are black, a percentage that far exceeds the proportion of African Americans in the Detroit region and state.

The first statewide release of mortality by race in Michigan, among the first in the nation, suggests that the actual percentage of blacks killed could be significantly higher — the race of nearly a third killed has yet to be disclosed.

In Michigan, just 14% of the population is black. And while the coronavirus outbreak has been centered in Metro Detroit, African Americans make up less than a quarter of the six-county metropolitan area.

Michigan's death toll climbed to 417 on Thursday and total cases topped 10,000. Hard-hit Detroit, a majority-black city, has 97 fatalities, but predominantly white Oakland County has 119 deaths.

“The numbers don’t lie,” said state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit. “It reinforces what I am seeing in the city of Detroit.”

The statistics are alarming but not surprising, said Carter, who is black and recovering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“I just try to stay off Facebook. … You always see somebody you know, asking to send prayers.”

The mortality figures track closely to the percentages who tested positive for the virus: 35% are African American, 25% are white and the race of 34% was not disclosed.

Health experts have warned that African American populations 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 and die in such disproportionate numbers.

"There is no reason to believe that the health conditions affect the infection rate," Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Wednesday. "There's no question; Detroiters suffer from kidney disease, from heart disease, from asthma at rates typically double that of the surrounding communities. That doesn't affect the infection rate. It may affect the fatality rate."

The numbers didn't shock Pastor Barry Randolph of Detroit's Church of the Messiah, a lifelong resident of the predominantly African American city. Many people in his community live in close proximity to one another and many have limited access to health care, he said.

"They’ve been so marginalized for so long they don’t trust anybody," Randolph said. 

Washtenaw County on Thursday released racial data of its 112 hospitalized residents, showing 48% of those individuals are black and 41% are white. Only 11% percent of county residents are black and 70% are white, according to Census Bureau data. 

“We know viruses do not discriminate based on location, race, ethnicity or national origin,” Jimena Loveluck, health officer with the Washtenaw County Health Department said in a press release. “However, viruses like COVID-19 can highlight health disparities that are deeply rooted in our society.”

The new statewide data came as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Michigan surpassed 10,700 Thursday and as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer predicted the "apex" of the virus in the state may not come until the end of the month or early May.

The state reported 1,457 new coronavirus cases and 80 new deaths through data released by the Department of Health and Human Services. Overall, the state has now disclosed 10,791 cases and 417 deaths since confirming its first case on March 10.

Thursday was the fourth day in a row that Michigan posted its highest number yet of new COVID-19 deaths in a 24-hour period. The previous high was 78 on Wednesday.

However, the number of new cases disclosed Thursday, 1,457, was down by more than 250 compared with the number of new cases disclosed Wednesday, 1,719.

The new numbers came less than five hours after Whitmer announced she was suspending face-to-face learning and closing all K-12 buildings for the rest of the school year to stem the spread of COVID-19.

During a press conference, she described Michigan as a "hot spot" for the coronavirus and said the "apex" for the virus in the state wouldn't come until the end of April or early May.

"At this juncture, we think we're probably a good month out from the apex of COVID-19," Whitmer said Thursday. "This disease is spreading very fast here in Michigan."

Why data released

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released the racial breakdown Thursday after the data was requested by media, the public and various organizations, said Lynn Sutfin, the department's spokeswoman.

Wayne County, the Michigan county with the highest percentage of black or African American residents, has been the hardest county hit by COVID-19 in the state. Although the county has about 17% of the state's population, it has 47% of the state's COVID-19 cases.

The growth in coronavirus cases in Detroit has made Wayne County a national hot spot for the disease. Michigan's largest city has a population that is more vulnerable to severe cases and even death. Detroit has a higher percentage of African Americans and higher poverty levels than any other large U.S. city. 

It's plausible that African American populations might be at greatest risk for suffering severely if infected because of underlying conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease are more common in African Americans than other groups, said Stephen Hawes, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington. 

"Many of these differences are due to poverty and lack of access to quality care and services," Hawes said. "It may also be that African Americans and other under-served groups have less access to testing and/or present with more severe disease, again putting them at higher risk for death due to COVID."

Michigan health officials have acknowledged the role that poverty and health conditions play in the pandemic.

"There is no question that the COVID-19 outbreak is having a more significant impact on marginalized and poorer communities, particularly communities of color," Michigan Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun told The Detroit News last week.

"We know that people with these underlying medical conditions are more likely to become severely ill from COVID-19," Khaldun said.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former director of the Detroit Health Department, said the new state numbers weren't surprising considering the vulnerability of communities of color in Michigan. The virus should point people back to figuring out what's making black residents more vulnerable and to trying to solve those problems, he said.

“This is a cruel disease and it picks on the most vulnerable people," said El-Sayed, a 2018 Democratic candidate for governor.

Likewise, Michigan Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, said people who've had their water shut off can't wash their hands and it's hard for people who have to ride the bus to socially distance themselves from others. Hollier said many people in his district can't afford to stockpile groceries so they don't have to go to the store for a month.

"Coronavirus, as real and as intense as it is and as much as it’s changed most people’s worlds, it’s not the biggest concern for a lot of people," Hollier said. "Because there are so many other things in the near term that they have to do to survive to the next day."

Racial data sought

Oakland County, the county with the second-most cases in Michigan, doesn't have racial data on more than half of its confirmed cases, spokesman Bill Mullan said Thursday.

"We think it would be a misrepresentation to release racial data with so much of the picture missing," he said in a text message.

However, the five ZIP codes with the most cases in Oakland County have higher percentages of black and African American residents than the county.

At the national level, Democratic lawmakers have called out an apparent lack of racial data that they say is needed to monitor and address disparities in the national response to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter sent last Friday to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, both Democrats from Massachusetts, said comprehensive demographic data on people who are tested or treated for the virus that causes COVID-19 does not exist.

Michigan ranks fourth

Michigan continued to rank fourth among all U.S. states for confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday afternoon, according to tracking from the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. Michigan was behind New York, New Jersey and California.

Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said Thursday health officials don't know the exact date the peak will come but as of now, the state is still on the "up-slope."

The peak date for use of hospital resources in Michigan is projected to be April 9, according to a model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. That model, which is continually updated, currently projects the peak date for COVID-19 deaths in the state to be April 11.

A protester wearing a medical mask drives around downtown Lansing on Thursday, April 2, 2020. A sign taped to the vehicle calls for "mass testing now."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters in his state Thursday that the peak of COVID-19 there was seven to 30 days away, according to various models. Cuomo said the differences depend on how the models assess the impact of social distancing restrictions.

In addition to closing schools, Whitmer has previously banned large public gatherings and issued a stay-at-home order that forced nonessential businesses to limit their operations. The stay-at-home order took effect on March 24.

As of Thursday, Michigan had reported tests of 31,177 specimen for COVID-19. Of those, 8,005 tested positive. The testing numbers reported by the Department of Health and Human Services aren't comprehensive.


Associated Press contributed.