As COVID-19 ravaged our region, a startling trend emerged: African Americans were disproportionately getting the novel coronavirus and dying from it. As of late April, black people comprised some 40% of the more than 3,500 deaths in Michigan despite being just 14% of the state’s population, a problem that has emerged not just here but across the country.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to know why and what can be done about it, so in early April she tapped her No. 2, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, to head up the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities and begin seeking meaningful interventions.
Gilchrist, the highest-ranking African American elected official in state history, had never won elected office before Whitmer tapped him as her running mate in 2018. He’s a Detroit-born, Farmington-raised computer scientist who spent his pre-Lansing career applying technology to left-leaning political activism, mostly in Washington, D.C., for moveon.org. His new assignment from Whitmer to apply his obsession with data and technology to the question of COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on people of color, then, is an unusual opportunity to combine those interests not as an agitator but as an insider.
He spoke to Hour Detroit in late April from his Detroit home about the task force, those Confederate flag-waving protesters in Lansing, and the prospect that his boss could be tapped to be presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate.
Hour Detroit: What has the task force done so far to address racial disparities?
Garlin Gilchrist: One of our first moves was to send out a letter that was guidance to every medical provider in the state warning them that medical bias may be unintentionally playing a factor in determining who gets tested for COVID-19 and the type of treatment that is being made available to people. That combination of not getting tested and not getting optimal treatment due to any implicit bias can be a contributor to negative outcomes. Our administration had already started looking at this in the context that black women in Michigan die from pregnancy-related causes at a rate three times higher than white women. That’s why we announced the Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies initiative back in February. We’re trying to build on other work we’ve done around disparities but with the urgency of a global pandemic that’s been so deadly to people of color, and black people in particular right now.
Are you saying doctors are deciding who gets the test based on race?
I’m saying there are many factors. It had to do with symptoms, with age, with a number of co-morbidity factors. But medical research shows race may play a factor, too. The reason Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, our chief medical executive, wrote that guidance is because research shows naming racial bias and telling providers to be mindful of it is effective in countering it.
How will you know we’re improving the situation?
Testing is really important to knowing about community spread. Michigan was one of the first states in the nation to report test results on racial and ethnic lines, but we still have a meaningful fraction of those where race is unknown. We need to fill that gap. We also need a robust ability to trace people’s contacts. The third thing is, what is our capacity for people for whom it is a challenge to isolate? How many people can we help isolate safely, and how do we make sure that we have enough capacity for the people who may test positive? These are quantitative measures that are important to watch.
How do you mitigate the systemic problems caused by poverty during a pandemic?
We create protocols for public transportation and the workplace to minimize exposure, whether that’s providing personal protective equipment or creating cleaning and sanitation protocols, how we manage shifts, how we manage social distancing on a bus. And we must create ways for people to safely self-isolate. You can’t isolate if you live in a home with one room or one bedroom or one bathroom. We’ve seen a model in Dearborn where there’s a first responder drive-up testing site and isolation center at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center. We’re looking into similar models for Wayne and Oakland counties so the homeless population or low-income people more broadly can self-isolate. That can slow down the community spread.
When President Trump tweets, “Liberate Michigan,” is there something the people of Michigan need to be liberated from?
No. The only thing we are working to overcome here in Michigan is COVID-19. It’s important that people exercise their right to freedom of assembly, but they also must do so in a way that is safe for them and for the communities they love and represent. Holding a political rally where people are waving Confederate flags has nothing to do with COVID-19 and everything to do with being partisan and problematic.
What will the legacy of this pandemic be for addressing these racial disparities?
Many people of color are coming into contact with a doctor for the first time or the first time in a long time for the purposes of getting tested for COVID-19. That could be an opportunity, then, for that person to establish a relationship with a primary care physician that can outlast the pandemic. If it remains affordable and accessible, that will help them manage chronic conditions and also do more preventative health measures than before. We’re trying to figure out in the context of this task force how to do that.
If Joe Biden picks Gretchen Whitmer as his vice president and they win, you’ll be governor. Have you thought about that much?
No, I’ve been thinking about the 16 people in my life I’ve lost to COVID-19, including my cousin three days ago. I’m thinking about how we can protect vulnerable people in communities across our state. I work in my office in my home in Detroit. My wife has a full-time job. We have three children. Our kids are not in school, so I’m trying to make sure they learn math. I’m consumed with these things right now.