Michigan's racial disparity disappears in new virus cases

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The disproportionate number of African Americans among newly reported COVID-19 cases has largely disappeared in Michigan over recent weeks, data suggests.

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson referenced the turnaround during a presentation Thursday to the Lansing Economic Club. Wilson, who sits on a gubernatorial task force created to examine racial disparities, appeared with the presidents of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

"One thing that is not being talked about enough is this huge racial disparity that we saw at the beginning has now been completely eliminated," Wilson said. The university told The Detroit News that state officials would not permit the release of the supporting data.

Graphics reviewed by The News, however, suggest the rate of new cases reported among the African American population nearly converged with the rate seen in other races at well under 100 per million in early August and has remained similar ever since. At its peak, African American cases were more than three times those in any other race.

The convergence in rates of new cases has lessened, but has not erased, the hugely disproportional racial impact of the disease overall. In Michigan, 38% of all deaths and 22% of all cases have been among African Americans, who represent just 14% of the state's population, according to state data posted Thursday.

And significant disparities have lingered among the Hispanic population, although there are recent signs that those, too, are abating.

At one time, African Americans represented 40% of the deaths from COVID-19. 

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, confirmed the reduction in COVID-19 cases among African Americans in a text message late Thursday night. She said more on this issue will be coming next week.

On Friday, Tommy Stallworth, who chairs the task force, told fellow members and attendees of the weekly virtual briefing that The News' report speaks to the progress that's being made. The findings, he noted, were outlined in a presentation to the task force two weeks ago.

"People are asking 'what's the special sauce.' I'm not sure that we necessarily know just yet," he said. "What we do know is that based on the efforts that you all have taken, we have pulled together a broad-based coalition that has focused on addressing those disparities in many different ways and it seems to be paying off."

Stallworth stressed, however: "We still have family, friends and neighborhoods who are dying from this terrible virus and so we've got to remain disciplined and vigilant."

Michigan has reported 119,597 cases and 6,700 deaths as of Thursday. Michigan has reported race data for 84% of cases and 97% of deaths.

"An outstanding accomplishment," said Trey Greene, a resident of Detroit, one of the hardest-hit areas of the state. "Makes us part of the national conversation."

Michigan still has significantly larger numbers of African Americans impacted by the virus when compared nationally. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Blacks make up 18.4% of cases and 21% of the deaths in America.

Jon Zelner, an assistant professor in UM's Department of Epidemiology and the

Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, said the numbers can be misleading "in the sense that the disparity has come down in part because rates among whites and other groups in Michigan went up so precipitously over the summer and have stayed higher than they were during the period when the 'Stay Home, Stay Safe' order was in effect."

"There is no doubt that the targeted actions to reduce these disparities have also had a positive effect," Zelner said. "But I think we want to be careful in declaring any kind of victory on this front because at least a part of that gap closing is a reflection of the backsliding statewide, which mirrors the national trends."

Zelner also said it's important to treat disparities as only one benchmark: "What we want is no differences by race but with a very low caseload. Where we are right now is not that."

Things can also change, he added.

"Going into flu season, we will see changing conditions that may ratchet these disparities back up again, and we should be ready to act decisively if that happens," he said.

On Thursday, the university presidents attributed the lowered toll on African Americans to a variety of interventions, although other factors might also be at work.

But Wilson warned the African American community should not get complacent and must continue wearing masks, maintain social distancing and avoid large gatherings. 

"It is still worth pointing out the remarkable turnaround," said Wilson, adding he has worked in the field of racial disparities for a long time, and it's unusual to see efforts have an impact so quickly. "It allowed targeted intervention to make a big difference."

Wilson attributed the close to many efforts created as a result of Whitmer creating the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities in April, the group on which he sits. The group has been reviewing weekly COVID-19 reports prepared for the Michigan Economic Recovery Council, he said.

UM President Mark Schlissel agreed it was great news, especially during a time when a vibrant discussion is being held around the nation around structural racism.

"With the recognition of the problem and the provision of targeted health care at the same level the rest of the state has come to expect, we can actually mitigate the consequences of the inadequate health care that certain segments of the population receive," Schlissel said.

"Although it was striking and discouraging, this disparate effect of the pandemic on the Black community, it's encouraging that once we recognized these things and called them out, some of these things we can fix and fix in short order."

There were numerous steps the state took to get here, said Wilson.

One of the strategies for diminishing the impact of COVID-19 on Black residents was expanding an effort by Wayne State to take COVID-19 testing to vulnerable populations. Initially, the university set up sites for first responders, then pivoted to taking testing to residents since some are without transportation. 

WSU's program was primarily in Metro Detroit, then expanded to a statewide mobile testing effort that included prisons, nursing homes and Black neighborhoods with a high incidence of COVID-19.

Other task force strategies included getting information into communities of color and explaining the situation with coronavirus and the disparity, Wilson said.

Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical executive and chief deputy director for Health and Human Services, encouraged doctors and health care providers to undergo implicit bias training, Wilson said. 

"All of our universities are very focused on some sort of response to COVID-19, and in varying degrees have been very focused on this racial disparities situation," Wilson said.

"... This racial disparity that was so prevalent at the beginning of the pandemic has been completely wiped out. I'm sure the collective efforts of the committee and everything the universities are doing is having some sort of effect."