Michigan officials: Blacks contracting, dying of virus at same rate as whites

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

African Americans in Michigan are contracting the coronavirus at the same rate as whites, according to state data released Monday, reducing the disproportionate impact of cases and deaths the minority suffered during the early stages of the pandemic.

State officials released data Monday showing that Michigan has seen "significant progress" in reducing COVID-19 on communities of color in the past two weeks and created a program in hopes of continuing the trend.  But one expert said that while the data are hopeful, more than two weeks of data are needed to establish a trend on a health issue that has Black Americans very concerned.

The development comes after Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson said last week the gap has been eliminated.

State health officials highlighted that Black residents account for 8.2% of confirmed and probable cases and 9.9% of such deaths in the past two weeks. By contrast, white residents comprised 88.7% of cases and 88.9% of deaths.

But Blacks have cumulatively represented 29.4% of cases and 40.7% of deaths since infections began in March, according to state data. Black residents make up 14% of Michigan’s population, while whites comprise 79%, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, spearheaded by Lt. Gov. Gilchrist, "has helped us dramatically reduce the number of African Americans who have been impacted by COVID-19." 

"We are not out of the woods yet, and must continue to do our part to save lives and protect our brave front-line workers," Whitmer said.

But at least one public health expert has warned against reaching a conclusion too soon. 

Michigan's data show a turning point on COVID-19 that disproportionately affects African Americans, said Jaime Slaughter-Acey, an assistant professor of epidemiology at University of Minnesota School of Public Health. But she expressed concern about the amount of data.

"Two weeks of data is a little premature to say that the war on racial disparities and COVID-19 has been won," said Slaughter-Acey, who studies racial disparities in health. "Before we can truly be saying that we have won this war against COVID with respect to racial disparities, we need a couple more months of data showing that rates among Black Americans in Michigan have stabilized."

Michigan doesn't want to see a sudden increase in COVID-19 among Black residents in a few weeks, she said. So continued vigilance and monitoring is needed to see if this new data reflects a continued trend.

Although the rate of new cases and deaths among African Americans due to COVID-19 is falling lower than the proportion of Black residents in the state, COVID-19 rates among white residents are going up, Slaughter-Acey said. The rise of white cases contributes to a narrowing of the disparity, she said.

"What we would like to see is that rates among white residents are staying stable and rates among Black residents are decreasing," Slaughter-Acey said. "You don't want a disparity to narrow just because the group that was having fewer cases is having more cases."

Nevertheless, she called it "very, very exciting data and it points to hope and we need to be optimistic about it."

Slaughter-Acey hailed the Michigan task force's work in mitigating environmental and infrastructure issues that potentially increase Michigan Black residents' exposure to the virus, especially since national polls are showing that Black are far more concerned about the virus than their white counterparts.

It's difficult to say whether Michigan's trend is reflected nationally, she said.

"There are some states in which there is this decrease in COVID-19 cases among Black Americans," Slaughter-Acey said. "But it's not happening across the board, state by state. It looks like Michigan has really centered ... and really trying to implement solutions to get on the other side of these COVID-19 racial disparities."

Gilchrist, who spoke on CNN about the reduction in COVID-19 among African Americans, said the state should be proud of its progress.

“However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are still in the midst of a pandemic that continues to take the lives of our friends and family," said Gilchrist, Michigan's first African-American lieutenant governor. "We still have work to do to tackle generations of racial disparities and inequality to ensure that all Michiganders can lead happy and healthy lives.

"And more than anything else we need to keep the governor’s emergency measures in place to limit the spread of this virus, which we know causes disproportionate harm among people of color who start out in a more vulnerable position.” 

Whitmer's unilateral emergency powers under a 1945 Michigan law are being reviewed by the Michigan Supreme Court, which is being asked by the Republican-controlled Legislature to strike it down as unconstitutional under separation of power arguments.

Whitmer said Michigan has established the Rapid Response Grant program and awarded 31 grants totaling nearly $20 million in federal CARES Act funding to local groups for address needs such as food and housing insecurity, technology and tablets, access to testing and flu vaccines and improved contract tracing.

"The Rapid Response Grant Program will help us continue this hard work and create a blueprint that states across the country can follow to protect their most vulnerable,” the governor said. 

Whitmer created the task force by executive order on April 20, around the time that COVID-19 deaths in Detroit began to flatten. The task force studied the causes of racial disparities in the impact of COVID-19 and recommended actions to address them. 

The state began distributing scores of masks to the public with a program that began in August and was backed by Ford Motor Co. It also started a marketing and social media campaign directed at communities of color.

The state increased access to COVID-19 testing in communities of color through mobile, walk-up and drive through testing sites.

The reductions among African Americans also occurred after Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ramped up testing in Michigan's largest city with an 80% Black population and aggressively promoted the wearing of masks among residents. 

Duggan, the former chief executive of the Detroit Medical Center, spent mid-April rolling out COVID-19 testing for the city's nursing home residents and staff. Whitmer worked on similar efforts.

Wayne State's Wilson said last week this issue was not being talked about and that the progress is critical. Nearly four decades have passed since U.S. Health and Human Service Secretary Margaret Heckler’s report on Black and Minority Health reported 60,000 excess deaths annually in black and minority populations due to health disparities.

"This health gap persists to this day," said Wilson, who previously served in the U.S. National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. "The experience here in Michigan with COVID-19 provides hope that progress can be made in addressing persistent racial health disparities if we focus deeply and work together."

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun applauded the task force. 

“Swift actions have been taken to address the health inequities that existed prior to the pandemic and were exacerbated by the virus," Khaldun said. "Access to testing and adequate resources to protect communities of color will continue to be a priority as we fight COVID-19."

But she said every must stay vigilant in protecting themselves from the virus.

"We must continue to take precautions including wearing masks, maintaining social distancing of at least six feet from others, washing our hands often and staying home if we are feeling ill,” Khaldun said.