New report on Michigan COVID-19 racial disparities shows state making progress

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced an improvement to COVID-19's racial disparities in the state, months after minority communities reflected more severity and death during the pandemic.

During a press conference on Thursday, she and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist expressed admiration for the work by the racial disparities task force.

It's a bright spot amid a surging public health emergency that has put the state in a three-week pause on government restrictions.

Significant progress in reducing racial disparities

After the pandemic placed a glaring spotlight on the different public health threats faced by Black Michiganders that other communities in the state don't, the government released its first report showing progress Michigan has made in reducing those disparities.

Whereas COVID-19 tore through minority communities in the spring months during Michigan's first surge, the average number of cases experienced between minority groups has fallen to a third. At the same time, the number of deaths per million has fallen by more than 20.

“Today’s report shows that significant progress has been made toward our goal to reduce these disparities over the past six months. 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," said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist in a press release. "When we successfully make it to the other side of this pandemic, we will hug each other a little tighter, check in on each other a little more, and be proud of the work we did to make each other’s lives better.” 

From March and April, the average cases per million among Black Michigan residents was 176. In September and October, it fell to 59. During those same periods, the number of Black Michigan residents dying fell from 21.7 per million per day to one.

Despite Black residents making up only 14% of Michigan's population, they were made up 38% of COVID-19 cases and 40% of deaths in spring months. 

RELATED: Michigan's medical director lays out plan for vaccine distribution in the state

A combination of social inequities and systemic racism built up over decades revealed a cold truth to many Americans about the increased threats that minorities face in the state. From breathing in air with more toxins and having less access to health care to not having the luxury of working from home, several factors played a role in the greater rate of death.

Among challenges that Michigan's task force on racial disparities took on was increasing the number of free tests in underserved communities 

“Michigan has been recognized as a nationwide leader in addressing health disparities that have come to light as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic because the governor and lieutenant governor have dedicated themselves to ensuring equitable support for our most vulnerable communities throughout this crisis," said Maureen Taylor, a member of the task force.

Where Michigan's second Coronavirus surge stands

It appears Michigan's second surge is beginning to slow as daily records for new cases last month have been replaced by not-quite-as-high counts this week. However, with the Christmas holiday season around the corner, public health pitfalls continue to loom over the state.

The state hit its new coronavirus peak on Nov. 20 when almost 10,000 new cases were reported. Daily case rates since then have followed the journey of a roller coaster that just went over its highest point, dropping by half before climbing again. On Wednesday, another 6,955 positive tests were confirmed.

A combination of community spread and increased testing helps tell the story of Michigan's second surge, which dwarfs its recorded cases in the spring.

The result of November's record number of cases is beginning to show up in other trends, validating concerns from Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. On Tuesday, the state reported one of its deadliest days during the pandemic when 190 more people died from COVID-19, including 30 more in a review of death certificate data.

The state's hospital bed capacity also reveals grim news for Michigan as many are nearing 100% capacity and can not hold any more patients. As of Monday, several Metro Detroit facilities were near their limit:

  • Beaumont Royal Oak: 70%
  • Beaumont Wayne: 88% 
  • Henry Ford Macomb: 96%
  • Henry Ford Detroit: 76%
  • McLaren: Macomb: 92%
  • Ascension Macomb Oakland Warren: 94%

Prior to Thanksgiving, hospital CEOs and government officials made pleas to residents to avoid gatherings for the holidays, with experts predicting a far-deadlier surge if people didn't take more precautions to avoid catching the virus.

Michigan's rising trends follow similar reports around the country. On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief warned the next few months would be "the most difficult time in the public health history of the nation" because of COVID-19. The White House Coronavirus Task Force issued a similar statement, saying "We are in a very dangerous place" in regards to the pandemic.

It's unclear what COVID-19's status in Michigan means for any new lockdown measures in the state. Whitmer would not confirm if she planned on extending the state's temporary pause during an earlier address this week.