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Whitmer appoints task force on coronavirus racial disparities

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday she is appointing a coronavirus task force to recommend ways to address the racial disparities in the occurrence of the disease COVID-19 among Michiganians. 

She noted that over 40% of deaths due to COVID-19 in Michigan have been among African Americans, although African Americans make up 14% of the state's population. About 31% of deaths have been among whites, 24% of unknown race and 3% among individuals of multiple races.

The trend has also played out nationally, with 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.

"This virus is holding up a mirror to our society and reminding us of the deep inequities in our country — from basic lack of access to care, to access to transportation, to lack of protections in the work place," Whitmer said during a press briefing. 

"These inequities have that hit people of color and vulnerable communities the hardest."

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

"This has been a hard month. We've got to take the lessons that we've learned from it and use them for the betterment of our state and the betterment of our people," Whitmer said. 

"Members of the task force will regularly gather feedback from within impacted communities," she added. 

"It should not have to take a crisis like this for us to really address (disparate outcomes in health care). But here we are. It is an opportunity to examine it, to understand it and to do better."

Michigan ranks third in the country for the number of people with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, with over 21,500 confirmed cases and 1,076 deaths as of Thursday. 

Detroit has been among the hardest-hit areas of the country and has logged 6,083 total of COVID-19 and 272 deaths

While Michigan's coronavirus outbreak has been the worst in Metro Detroit, African Americans make up less than a quarter of the six-county metropolitan area.

Some experts have noted that African-American populations would be more susceptible to the most severe cases of COVID-19 because of the predominance in the community of underlying health conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes. 

But Dr. Steven Kalkanis, CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group and senior vice president and chief academic officer of the Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System, said he believes Metro Detroit and Michigan have been hot spots for the virus because of the area's economic resurgence.

"I’ve seen a lot of articles nationally about the urban decay and blight and poverty rates in Detroit as a means of explaining why the virus is spreading here," Kalkanis told reporters Thursday.

"I actually think it’s the exact opposite. … Detroit Metro Airport is one of the top five hubs in the world and because of the resurgence of Detroit we’ve had an incredible amount of commerce going back and forth … to places like China and Italy and Korea in the weeks leading up to this."

Whitmer said the task force will help develop steps the state can take to "lift families out of poverty."

She said officials are working with health care providers and universities to establish implicit bias training in curriculums.

The state also raised limits on asset testing for government aid programs "to ensure more families can afford to raise their family and paying for things like food and rent and utilities," Whitmer said.

Federal officials also said Thursday that Michigan will be the first state to launch a supplemental food-stamps benefit program to families of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals amid school closures during the pandemic.

Whitmer on Thursday extended Michigan's stay-home order, which was set to expire April 13 but will now stay in place through April 30. 

She also detailed more restrictions on store shopping by limiting the number of people in the store at one time. She also encouraged families to limit the number of household members running errands.

"Now is not the time to pull back at all. It is the time to intensify. That's exactly what we're doing," Whitmer said.

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff writers Craig Mauger contributed