Fewer Black Michigan residents getting, dying from COVID-19, report finds

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Fewer Black Michigan residents are getting and dying from COVID-19, according to a recent report from the Michigan Task Force on Racial Disparities.

The number of cases between March and October dropped from 176 cases per million people per day to 59 cases per million people per day, according to the report issued during a Thursday press conference.

Likewise, deaths have dropped between April and October from 21.7 deaths per million people per day to 1 death per million people per day. 

Michigan was one of the first states in the nation to begin to analyze cases and deaths by race and soon found Black individuals were disproportionately affected by the virus. 

In April, the state found 40% of those killed by the virus were African American, even though Black individuals make up about 14% of the population.

The discovery launched the task force, which analyzed the disproportionate impact and helped addressed it through methods as increased and strategic testing, primary care provider and telehealth access, public health campaigns and improved data quality on cases and deaths. 

"This work is really, deeply personal to me," said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, the task force's chairman and Michigan's first African-American lieutenant governor. Gilchrist has lost 24 people close to him to the virus.

“Today’s report shows that significant progress has been made toward our goal to reduce these disparities over the past six months," he said. "But as cases continue to rise, we need to recognize that our work is not done because each of us have a role to play to make sure that we defeat this virus."

The task force analysis also found Black people were more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic's spring peak. In the first quarter of the year, Black unemployment was at about 7% but it rose to 35.5% in the second quarter, the highest African American jobless rate in the country.

White people saw less dramatic spikes in unemployment, rising from 3.2% in the first quarter to 17.5 % in the second quarter. 

The task force plans to continue raising awareness about racial disparities in medical care and attempt to bridge that gap through increased health insurance enrollment and increased access to telehealth. The group also plans to build out mobile testing infrastructure so it could be used for other services such as vaccines. 

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon told lawmakers Thursday that the state had not considered mandatory vaccines as an option moving forward. 

Both Gordon and Gilchrist, at separate events, recognized the toll past medical experimentation abuses had taken on the Black community's trust in health care and vaccines in particular. 

Gilchrist said he would receive the vaccine publicly in an effort to boost confidence. He and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun assured people that the state would not promote the vaccine unless it was safe and effective. 

"The presence of a vaccine only matters if people get vaccinated," Gilchrist said.

Khaldun announced during the press conference that the state would shorten the quarantine period to 10 days based on new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would not confirm whether she would extend the three-week "pause" that closed restaurants to indoor dining and high schools and colleges to in-person learning through Dec. 8. But she said it may be "sadly possible" because of the volume of COVID-19 cases in Michigan.

Health officials have said the state's positivity rate has decreased from 14% Nov. 16 to around 13%, where the rate has hovered in recent days. But Gordon told lawmakers Thursday the current data is difficult to interpret because people's behavior changed over Thanksgiving, which could drive Michigan's numbers up in the coming weeks. 

"I can say with 100% certainty no decisions have been made," Gordon told the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic about an extended closure.

Michigan reported 6,955 additional cases and 81 deaths related to COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the state's total number of cases to 373,197 and the number of COVID-related deaths to 9,405.