Whitmer announces creation of task force addressing racial disparities in COVID-19 infections, deaths

Monday, April 20, 2020 - 5:58pm

Governor Gretchen Whitmer provides an update on Monday on COVID-19 in Michigan.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer provides an update on Monday on COVID-19 in Michigan. Buy this photo
Courtesy Michigan Executive Office

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the creation of a task force dedicated to addressing racial disparities in COVID-19 related deaths. 40 percent of reported coronavirus deaths in the state are Black residents, though Black people make up only 14 percent of the state’s total population. 

Whitmer said while statewide cases are decreasing and the curve of cases is flattening, numbers are rising in rural areas that were previously unaffected. She also announced increased testing capabilities throughout the state and a more robust contact tracing program that will alert residents when they have come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

“Statewide, the number of patients who are in the hospital with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 has declined from a high point about 10 days ago,” Whitmer said. “In fact, we have seen a 15 percent reduction in the last 10 days … Utilization remains high in some places but we do see some decreases emerging.”

Whitmer spoke alongside Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. She said the task force will consist of politicians and health care experts focusing specifically on coronavirus risks in communities of color. 

“They will recommend actions to increase transparency and reporting data regarding the racial and ethnic impact of COVID-19, removing barriers to accessing physical and mental health care, reduce the impact of medical bias in treatment and testing, mitigate environmental and infrastructure factors contributing to increased exposure during pandemics resulting in mortality and develop improved systems for supporting long-term economic recovery and physical and mental health care during a pandemic,” Whitmer said. 

Khaldun said medical professionals across the state must be conscious of these disparities in order to reduce bias and effectively serve areas with large numbers of cases. 

“We’ve talked about racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths that we are seeing across the state with African Americans being disproportionately impacted,” Khaldun said. “Today, I sent a letter to our medical community to make sure they are aware of these disparities and giving them the tools they need to be able to appropriately address them.”

Gilchrist, who will lead the task force, said the disproportionate impact of coronavirus in communities of color is the result of generations of systemic discrimination. As a result, he said the task force’s work will require them to think of systemic solutions that address both immediate health risks and deeper societal issues.

“Despite the progress that has been made for generations in terms of bending our arcs toward justice, we still have to respond to generations of racial disparities and inequity that have impacted communities of color across our state and across the country,” Gilchrist said. “Our administration has put in place several measures and pieces of infrastructure to try to address these disparities.”

These same disparities in the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak are present inWashtenaw County.

In an interview with The Daily earlier this month, Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, communications and health promotion administrator at Washtenaw County Health Department, said the department is working to help vulnerable communities as the virus spreads, which they’ve done prior to the pandemic as well.

“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.” 

At the press conference, Gilchrist said the task force’s work and state’s response to the pandemic will not only affect infection and mortality rates but also the ways in which individuals interact with one another in times of crisis. 

“Once we get to the other side of this, I think we’re going to be more mindful of how we treat and spend time with one another,” Gilchrist said. “We’re gonna call a little more often. We’re gonna say ‘I love you’ a little more forcefully. We’re gonna have more meaningful interactions and conversations. And that connection, that will be the legacy of this pandemic. How we came together, how we worked today, how we stayed together and how we stand tall for one another.” 

Daily News Editor Liat Weinstein can be reached at weinsl@umich.edu.