By Donald James
Long before the inception of COVID-19 and the ongoing pandemic, healthcare disparities were severely experienced in Black communities across Detroit, the state, and beyond. Nevertheless, the current pandemic has been a tremendous wake-up call to address the seriousness of healthcare disparities in Black communities across America, the world’s richest country.
In Michigan, a sobering two-plus years of the pandemic revealed that African Americans represent nearly 14 percent of Michigan’s population but once accounted for 40 percent of the coronavirus deaths. What followed has been a textbook approach to how teamwork can and has made a difference in addressing health concerns and disparities in African American and other communities of color.
Shortly after the pandemic began, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer saw the deadly number of African Americans becoming sick, hospitalized, and dying from COVID-19 in a state with approximately 1.35 million Black people. In Detroit, a majority Black major city with more than 550,000 Black people, the coronavirus and the healthcare neglect ripple effect were wreaking havoc from the east side to the west side of the Motor City.
Through Executive Order No. 2020-55, Whitmer convened The Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, headed by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan’s first Black lieutenant governor. The Task Force, the first of its kind in America, consists of medical doctors, health experts, scientists, community organizers, educators, and legislators with marching orders to reduce racial disparities and speed up the state’s COVID-19 response to reach healthy outcomes across the board, particularly in Black and Brown communities.
In March 2022, the State’s Coronavirus Racial Disparities Task Force released its findings, along with short and long-term goals that it believes will close the health and healthcare disparity gaps for Black, Brown, and other underserved groups.
“I am continually grateful for each task force member’s willingness to serve and create meaningful and lasting change,” said Gilchrist. “This report details the Michigan Coronavirus Taskforce on Racial Disparities’ progress on our short and long-term goals, and it presents our recommendations for collaborative policy and programming work with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and other state departments and agencies. Our recommendations recognize that systemic problems require systemic solutions.”
Some key actionable takeaways from the Task Force’s report included reducing barriers to testing and expanding it in communities of color, developing culturally competent messaging for best practices of COVID-19 mitigation, improving the sharing of racial data collection, and improving access to healthcare for marginalized populations. In addition to the report making actionable recommendations for the current pandemic, it is also intended to help Michigan, and other states and localities, effectively prepare for addressing the next pandemic or public health crisis in a more racially equitable way that acknowledges and responds to the challenges that systemic racism presents.
While the pandemic rages on, with predictable and unpredictable peaks and valleys, the Task Force continues its work while meeting twice a month.
“This Task Force was able to bring different energies, different thoughts, and different perspectives and experiences together to address and provide what people in the community really need in this critical pandemic,” said Task Force member Bridget Hurd, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s vice president of Inclusion and Diversity, Chief Diversity Officer, and leads the company’s Office of Health and Health Disparities, which focuses on achieving health equity through delivery and accessibility to care.
Hurd said getting information to African American communities and others quickly and accurately remain critical to helping save lives. She said it is important to bust the myths that were prevalent in the Black community about the coronavirus and pandemic.
“Early in the pandemic, there was a myth that Black people couldn’t get COVID-19,” recalled Hurd. “We developed reliable, consistent, and accurate information that we pushed out to our partners in the community, like churches and non-profit organizations, to dispel that and other myths.”
Hurd said that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan has been addressing health and healthcare disparities for many years, but in December 2020, the company established the Office of Health and Health Care Disparities. The office, according to Hurd, strengthens the company’s commitment to making concerted efforts to understand disparities among members and the community, while identifying systemic and community efforts to address disparities and working in partnership with others in the community to improve and maintain community wellness.
“We at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan address health and health care disparities in a number of ways,” Hurd said. “ We look at it from a systemic perspective, and that’s looking at policies, procedures, and different initiatives that can help make a difference and create sustainable changes in communities.” Hurd also said that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is focusing more on mental health.
“We will have an increased focus on mental health this year because behavioral health is centered around Health Equity,” Hurd explained. “We are working to understand where the gaps are and work in partnerships with providers and even employers to address mental health needs. And July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, where we will be leveraging our work in mental health both internally and externally.”
Dr. Curtis L. Ivery, Chancellor, Wayne County Community College District, also serves on the Task Force.
“WCCCD is a cornerstone institution for the region and certainly for the communities that we serve,” said Ivery. “We knew that we could contribute to the Task Force in meaningful ways and by working together with others to make a bigger impact. The Task Force was meant to look at every aspect of this crisis – from data transparency and reporting to environmental and infrastructure factors that increased exposure to COVID, to medical bias in testing and treatment, to systems for long-term economic recovery, as well as physical and mental healthcare.”
Ivery adds that “everyone should have resources at their fingertips, and the findings of this report will enhance our efforts across the city, state, and nation to raise awareness and focus on finding solutions and funding to propel initiatives that work to close that gap.”
Dr. M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University and a medical doctor, provides another voice of expertise to the Task Force.
“My areas of expertise are in epidemiology and health disparities,” Wilson said. “I want to contribute to the Task Force not only from the standpoint of a medical doctor but as the president of Wayne State University, where we have a large medical school that is very much connected to the communities of Detroit, which are mainly Black. Our medical school does a lot of work with health and healthcare disparities.”
Wilson believes that the Task Force has made serious inroads in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and other health and health care disparities that have plagued Black communities for decades.
“I feel that the Task Force has shown with concerted efforts, improvements can be made in healthcare access and delivery even beyond the COVID in African American communities in Michigan,” said Wilson, whose internship at Harlem Hospital Center in 1980 provided him with an in-depth look at healthcare disparities in the solidly Black community of Harlem. “A difference can be made with certain interventions that can be quite encouraging when addressing other healthcare issues and problems in Black and Brown communities.”