Whitmer’s COVID-19 racial disparity task force releases findings

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist on Thursday released an early report from their COVID-19 Task Force on Racial Inequities, laying out what has been done so far to combat the disproportionate impact the virus has had people who are Black and set a path for future action.

“Since the beginning of this global pandemic, the coronavirus has really shined a light on the health, economic and educational challenges that Black communities, and frankly most communities of color, face on a daily basis,” Gilchrist, who chaired the task force, said at an afternoon press conference with the governor in Lansing. “When we observed these deadly trends presenting themselves due to COVID, we did not wait. We took immediate action. Our state chose not to wait. Black Michiganders could not afford for us to wait.”

Whitmer said that the virus has “exposed deep inequities” in health care, affordable housing, transportation and good jobs that people of color see.

The data backed that up. Black people account for about 14% of Michigan’s population, but at the start of the state’s outbreak they were accounting for 38% of all virus cases and 41% of virus-related deaths. They were dying, Gilchrist said, at a rate five times greater than the rate for white people.

Recently, however, Black people have accounted for 9.1% of all cases and 5.7% of deaths.

“The task force was established to priorities our communities of colors’ short-term needs without losing sight of the genuine need to reverse generations of racism and inequity that has wrought harm and built barriers that people of color must overcome to build happier and healthier lives,” Gilchrist said.

“This work is really, deeply personal to me,” Gilchrist said, explaining that 24 people he knows have died of the virus.

He said that with cases again surging, “it is more important than ever that we continue the work” of the task force.

He said the infrastructure established by the task force so far should be key in providing health services in the future and, more immediately, helping distributing coronavirus vaccines.

Gilchrist said the task force has four goals moving forward: maintaining and expanding the progress made in narrowing disparities, continuing targeted encouragement to remain vigilant and take individual action to slow the spread of the virus, developing programs for equitable management and distribution of vaccines and antiviral treatments for COVID-19 and the flu, and proposing policy changes that will combat the challenges that communities of color face.

THURSDAY CORONAVIRUS DATA

The state on Thursday announced 7,146 more cases of the virus had been confirmed in Michigan and 175 more deaths related to the virus had been recorded. Of those 175, 112 were discovered in a check of death certificates to find any that had not already been reported to the state.

In all, the virus has infected more than 373,197 people in Michigan since first being detected in the state in March and been linked to 9,405 deaths.

On Tuesday, labs in Michigan tested 70,792 samples for the virus and 11,281 were positive, a rage of 15.94%. That’s more than five times the 3% public health officials say demonstrates community spread is controlled.

The number of positive tests is not the same as the number of new cases because people may be tested more than once. Additionally, testing numbers are from a single calendar date, while the number of new cases lists the increase since the last time the state compiled the data; these two time frames do not match up precisely.

Kent County alone confirmed 507 more cases of the virus for a total of 33,377 since the start of the outbreak nearly nine months ago. It also recorded 16 more related deaths for 368.

Several other West Michigan counties also confirmed additional deaths:

  • Allegan County: Two more deaths for 32 total; 3,965 total confirmed cases since the start of the outbreak.
  • Berrien County: Three more deaths for 116 total; 6,695 total cases.
  • Branch County: One more death for 16 total; 2,207 total cases.
  • Ionia County: Three more deaths for 125 total; 2,592 total cases.
  • Kalamazoo County: One more death for 165 total; 8,732 total cases.
  • Mecosta County: Three more deaths for 11 total; 1,263 total cases.
  • Montcalm County: Two more deaths for 28 total; 2,033 total cases.
  • Muskegon County: Two more deaths for 187 total; 7,711 total cases.
  • Oceana County: One more death for 24 total; 1,229 total cases.
  • Ottawa County: Three more deaths for 151 total; 705 total cases.
  • St. Joseph County: One more death for 35 total; 2,474 total cases.
  • Van Buren County: Two more deaths for 47 total; 2,899 total cases.

In Wayne County, where the virus initially hit hardest but which is no longer seeing the worst rates, 880 more cases were confirmed for a total of 63,412 since March. Another 23 related deaths were recorded for a total of 3,091. Neighboring Oakland County has had 43,355 confirmed cases (666 more than the previous day) and 1,334 deaths (18 more). Macomb County has had 38,120 cases (520 more) and 1,256 deaths (18 more).

MICHIGAN’S TOP DOC: CASES ‘ALARMINGLY HIGH’

Despite some slight improvements in key metrics in the last couple of weeks, Michigan’s chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said at the governor’s press conference that new case rates are still “alarmingly high” at five times what they were at the beginning of October.

The seven-day average of cases per million people per day in Michigan is nearly 450, and state tracking shows a slight decline in that rate. The Jackson region is currently seeing the highest rate at nearly 566 new cases per million per day, followed by West Michigan and Southwest Michigan, both of which are just higher than 500. Southwest and West Michigan, however, are seeing higher percentages of positive tests each day than Jackson’s rate.

A data breakdown released Wednesday by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services showed that as of Friday, the state ranked sixth in the nation in number of cases and 20th in case rates in the most recent seven-day period. Both those were an improvement over the previous seven-day period.

As of Thursday, state data showed 4,150 hospital inpatients were either suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, in improvement from the previous day. Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health said it had 306 patients, a decline of one from the previous day.

Khaldun said many hospitals are nearing or at capacity, with 81% of all ICU beds in the state occupied.

She also noted that with such a huge number of cases, it’s simply impossible for contact tracers to keep up in a timely manner. She said that means people must take action on their own.

“If you know you’ve been exposed, make sure you quarantine,” Khaldun said, adding that people who test positive must isolate themselves and tell their close contacts.

Officials are also worried we could see spikes in cases and hospitalizations in the coming weeks linked to Thanksgiving travel and gatherings and another increase after Christmas.

An epidemic order from the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that banned dine-in at restaurants, shut down movie theaters and bowling alleys, moved high schools and colleges online is currently scheduled to expire on Tuesday. Whitmer on Thursday would not say whether that order would be extended.

“The early numbers look as though we’re seeing a little of leveling. That’s a good thing,” she said, going on to say that moves like the epidemic order keep that going and turn it into a decline.

However, MDHHS Director Robert Gordon, who actually issued the epidemic order, indicated during a morning House committee hearing that it was unlikely restaurant dining rooms would be allowed to reopen next week.

“With the levels of spread that we have in Michigan right now, there is no way to make people sitting around a table, close together with masks off for an extended period of time, a safe activity,” Gordon told lawmakers. “There’s not a remediation for that, that is possible.”

Whitmer encouraged people to follow the virus mitigation practices public health officials have been touting for months, saying people know the right things to do.

“We just need to do it,” she said. “We all have a personal responsibility to protect each other.”

Khaldun said COVID-19 vaccines could start being distributed in Michigan as early as Dec. 15. She said the first to get the shots will be health care workers and those most at risk of contracting a serious case of the virus.

Eventually, it will be available to everyone. Khaldun encouraged adults to start thinking about their plan for getting it.