Washtenaw County Black Residents discuss barriers to preventing COVID-19

Monday, April 13, 2020 - 8:23pm

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design by Noah Finer

Washtenaw County has more than 700 cases of COVID-19 as of this week. While residents who identify as African American or Black make up 12.4 percent of the county population, 48 percent of hospitalized cases are residents who identify as African American or Black.

This pattern is consistent in coronavirus cases across that state and the nation. Detroit has almost 7,000 cases of COVID-19 and close to 400 deaths. Of those same cases, 57.7 percent are African American Detroit residents and 75.7 percent of COVID-19 deaths are African Americans.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has taken measures to address the increasing number of cases among African Americans in Michigan, including creating a minority taskforce to advise her on issues concerning the Black community led by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. She has declared a state of disaster and is working with the federal government to get more ventilators and personal protective equipment. 

Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, communications and health promotion administrator, sent out an email to Washtenaw County residents highlighting data about race and zip codes. This email explained the disparities between the African American COVID-19 cases from Washtenaw County and the total population of African American residents from Washtenaw County. Also stated in the email were factors that could have contributed to the disparities in data, such as structural and environmental racism, access to health care and societal and economic factors. The county also shared that the COVID-19 cases are concentrated in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. 

Ringler-Cerniglia told The Daily that the Washtenaw County Health Department has been working on eliminating these disparities before COVID-19 occurred and is continuing to listen to the concerns of affected communities throughout the pandemic. 

“This isn’t something that we see only with Coronavirus. So it’s part of what we, as a public health department, are striving to do and improve all the time,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “We have long standing efforts to work with community members and with organizations to identify where we see these types of impacts and work to approve that to improve them.” 

African Americans are more at risk to die from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions that stem from systematic racism. Conditions such as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure are more prevalent among African Americans, making them more likely to die from the virus. 

One initiative Washtenaw County has put together is a Community Voices for Health Equity Team. Alex Thomas lives in Ypsilanti Township and is a member of this team as a representative for West Willow. He has been working as a community advocate since 2016 and has worked with the University of Michigan to address the needs of the West Willow neighborhood.

Thomas told The Daily that many factors impact the social determinants of health that make the African American population in Ypsilanti more vulnerable to COVID-19. Conditions such as poverty contribute to childhood trauma and housing stability as prevalent conditions in Washtenaw County. 

“Housing instability. If you don’t have a place to live, you’re kind of going to be more susceptible,” Thomas said. “And so we have a huge houseless population on the streets or …  instability, that causes a lot of stress. And that’s an immunosuppressant that compromises the immune system stress and anxiety. And it’s very stressful anxiety if you don’t have a place to live… But if you spend 50 percent of your income on housing, you’re not going to have discretionary income and these needs are going to be unmet. And you’re going to have those impacts of stress and anxiety.”

A K-12 teacher in Washtenaw County spoke to The Daily about her students. Due to fear of retaliation at her place of work, she will be referred to as Jane for the rest of the article. Jane is a teacher in Washtenaw County and notes that many of her students are essential workers in grocery stores. Many essential workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19, which makes them susceptible to fatal causes. She said she sees how COVID-19 is impacting students in her community through circumstances that harm their safety at home.

“A lot of our students experience an overwhelming amount of trauma just within high school. Even going out for essential items, I see a lot of my students just outside,” Jane said. “I have to remember to not be the person to be like, ‘hey you need to go home’ because they are dealing with so much. So I think trauma at home makes them vulnerable. I definitely think a lot of them have asthma, and that makes them vulnerable. And I think there’s been a lot of the essential workforce in the community and their parents makes them vulnerable to it.”

Yodit Mesfin Johnson, president and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprises at Work, told The Daily about the income disparity in Washtenaw County and how the division of wealth in Washtenaw has contributed to underlying factors that make communities vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Washtenaw County is the third wealthiest county in the state of Michigan, yet 40 percent of the people who live in this community live at what we call ALICE levels, Asset limited income constrained,” Johnson said. “So these are people who are living check to check or in poverty. Forty percent of our communities are living at or below poverty. And of that 40 percent, 60 percent of those people are African American and reside on the east side of the county in Ypsilanti, Willow Run, and Ypsi City. I think that’s also important because this is a story of ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ People perceive us as this progressive liberal, wealthy bedroom community of Detroit, but we have people literally barely making ends meet in the third wealthiest county.” 

Alfred Young Jr., professor of sociology at the University, conducts research on low-income, urban-based African Americans. Young told The Daily many African Americans are not able to stay inside as they must continue working in order to survive this crisis. 

 “Many African Americans, particularly of low-income circumstances, do not have the luxury of thinking about staying at home as the best means of surviving the crisis,” Young said. “They have little to no financial reserve. Therefore, as much as many Americans think that staying home ensures survival, struggling African Americans, if employed, feel that they must go to work in order to survive. Delivering food and groceries, stocking store shelves and any other kind of service work that they do — which actually enables more privileged people to remain comfortably at home and survive during the crisis — is precisely what African Americans who are in the working poor have to do in order to survive.” 

Catherine Lee, an Ann Arbor resident, is a mother of three. One of her sons is immunocompromised and her family has a history of diabetes. She said her family is working to manage these health conditions by incorporating a plant-based diet, but Lee acknowledged many families are not able to find better alternatives to manage these health concerns. 

“(Underlying health conditions are) mostly due to systematic racism. (African Americans) are sicker as a whole due to lack of education and resources when it comes to health. I know for our family, we started practicing a plant-based diet about three years ago and for a lot of people who look like us, that’s foreign,” Lee said. 

Racial bias in the medical field has also contributed to African Americans becoming more susceptible to COVID-19. Studies show doctors are less likely to test African Americans for COVID-19, which forces them to go through multiple visits before they can get a test.

Engineering freshman Temi Akinbola lives in Ypsilanti and touched on how African Americans are not treated equally by doctors due to a misconception that they are stronger. She said this misconception is preventing African Americans from getting tested for COVID-19.

“There’s also the fact that African Americans, just in the healthcare system, even if they have money, still aren’t treated the way they’re supposed to be treated,” Akinbola said. “There’s no reason that I’m three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than my equal counterpart. There’s a stigma that doctors have like, ‘African Americans are stronger, and stuff like that.’ But that’s not a reason to not pay attention to like whatever their patients may be saying and stuff like that. So there’s also the fact that some doctors just won’t test them based on race.”

Jane shared a similar story about her family members, who live in Detroit but had to come to Washtenaw County to get tested. She said her family members were so discouraged from being denied that they considered emphasizing their symptoms to get tested for COVID-19.

“I also think typically, in the medical community, we are not believed. So my cousin and my aunt had to go to the hospital three times,” Jane said. “I had to tell her to keep going, even to the point where she thought about exaggerating her symptoms because they were not considered to be truthful even to be tested... and I just think that that's something just very striking that we need to deal with county-wide, at the state level and even nationally.”

Western Michigan University student Bassey Offiong passed away from COVID-19 and he was only 25 years old. Offiong was turned down multiple times when he seeked testing for COVID-19 in Kalamazoo. He was not able to get tested until he returned to his home in Detroit and passed away shortly after. Lee, who is originally from Kalamazoo, said she believes that he would still be alive if he got tested in Kalamazoo.

“In my mind, if Kalamazoo had tested him, like they should have, he potentially may still be here,” Lee said. “I don't feel like that young man had to die and that happens a lot even before the COVID-19 outbreak, where people of color are less likely to get adequate health care. They don't take our concern seriously. For whatever reason, they always think there's some sort of ulterior motive to get pain medication or you're just trying to apply for disability and if that's the case, it's like so what, that's my prerogative, but we are treated unfairly when it comes to our health and our concerns.”

Because of these factors, Jane said the county should put out information specifically for African Americans and at-risk communities for preventing the spread that differs from the stay-at-home order, such as maintaining a healthy lifestyle and childcare for essential workers.

“I do think the messaging may need to be a little bit different for the African American Community. Specifically, like what should you be doing food-wise. It shouldn’t just be overall general messaging, just wash your hands,” Jane said. “Like those types of things that other families in Washtenaw County wouldn't even have to deal with. How do we get that message out specifically to the African American community?”

Daily Staff Reporter Jasmin Lee can be reached at itsshlee@umich.edu.