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Jeffrey Sure, 60, a nurse from Farmington, Mich., gives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to Thelma Rudolph, 87, of Detroit. (Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press) Jeffrey Sure, 60, a nurse from Farmington, Mich., gives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to Thelma Rudolph, 87, of Detroit. (Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

Jeffrey Sure, 60, a nurse from Farmington, Mich., gives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to Thelma Rudolph, 87, of Detroit. (Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

Clara Hendrickson
By Clara Hendrickson January 22, 2021

Why are racial disparities in Michigan’s COVID-19 cases and deaths shrinking?

If Your Time is short

  • COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on Black people in Michigan, but the state has seen racial disparities in deaths and cases close as the pandemic has progressed. 

  • The change reflects a range of factors, including the changing geography of the virus, Black Michiganders’ embrace of mask-wearing, state and local efforts to reduce transmission in communities of color and the surge in white COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who chairs the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, claimed that steps taken by communities of color, along with state and local efforts, have helped alleviate COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black residents.

"I’m proud to report that in the State of Michigan, we were able to really flatten that disparity and make significant progress," he said at an MLK Jr. Day Youth Conference.

Black residents make up 13.7% of Michigan’s population. But in April, they accounted for 42.93% of COVID-19 deaths, according to a Detroit Free Press analysis. That share has steadily decreased, and hit a low of 7.08% in November. Even during the second wave of the pandemic that began in the fall, the case rate among Black residents mostly remained below the rate for white people, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Michigan seems to have bucked the national trend, as Black communities across the country continue to experience disproportionately high death rates.

Gilchrist said the shift "is a tribute and a testimony, frankly, to people of color stepping up and doing the right things to keep themselves and their families safe." He also credited local and state efforts to address COVID-19’s toll on communities of color.

It is impossible to know for sure what’s driving the trend. Experts we talked to backed up Gilchrist’s claim, but also pointed to other factors, including the way the pandemic has spread beyond the early hot spots.

Geographical scope changes

The disparities have closed statewide. But Dr. Philip Levy, a professor at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, attributed the shift in part to Detroit. The onset of the pandemic in late March hit southeast Michigan hard, and Detroit — where the population is nearly 80% Black — became a hot spot. But the city is no longer leading the surge in cases and deaths in Michigan.

In early November, cases began raging in western Michigan. And in the late fall and early winter, the Upper Peninsula saw a big increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

In the most recent phase, Detroit has stood out for its low infection rate, even compared with the rest of the metro area.

"Despite the rise, Detroit has stayed down," said Levy. "Something must be going on, and the secret sauce, I think, is in the people themselves."

Detroiters were impacted early

Dawn Misra, an epidemiologist at Michigan State University who conducted a mortality review of Michiganders who died from COVID-19, said she suspects that the personal impact of the pandemic on the lives of Detroiters led the city’s residents to take the virus seriously.

"Everyone who lives in Detroit ended up being probably close to someone they knew who died," Misra said.

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Levy said Detroiters’ early and personal experiences led them to embrace mask-wearing and social distancing. "I think people really stepped up for their own personal responsibility and really recognized that they had an important role to play in this, and if people didn’t do that more people that they knew were going to die," he said.

Black Michiganders across the state have embraced mask-wearing. A survey conducted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services over the summer found that 81% of Black Michiganders reported that they always wear a mask, compared with 69% of the rest of the population.

"They listened to the science," Misra said.

State and local efforts

Misra also credited state and local efforts to reduce racial disparities. For instance, as cases surged in Detroit, the city rolled out rapid testing for first responders, bus drivers and health care workers, becoming the first city in the country to do so. Levy helped launch a mobile testing program in Detroit that deployed vehicles to neighborhoods where cases were rising. These were among many efforts to ramp up testing in the city, said Misra.

In late April, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established the task force to examine racial disparities during the pandemic. Michigan is only one of a dozen states with such a task force, according to the National Governors’ Association.

The state’s task force set up neighborhood testing sites in at-risk communities, launched media campaigns in urban communities on wearing masks and testing and provided personal protective equipment and food for quarantined individuals.

The virus got worse

But another factor in the narrowing racial disparity is the increase in cases in predominantly white areas in the state.

Jon Zelner, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said the worsening pandemic is an "underappreciated factor" in explaining the reduction in racial disparities. "Some of the narrowing of that gap unfortunately kind of comes from an increase in overall case burden," he said.

"When you see white deaths going up, the ratio looks better," he added.

Our ruling

Gilchrist claimed that Michigan has seen significant progress in reducing the racial disparities observed at the outset of the pandemic, particularly the disproportionate impact on Black residents, and credited community, state and local efforts.

Public health experts and officials say Black residents as well as the state and local governments made significant efforts to narrow the disparity. But a surge in cases among white people has also contributed, as the impact of the pandemic spread beyond Detroit into predominantly white areas around the state.

We rate Gilchrist’s claim Mostly True.

Pat Byrne contributed reporting. 

Our Sources

Dr. Philip Levy, Professor at the Wayne State University School of Medicine and the Associate Chair for Research in the Department of Emergency Medicine, phone interview, 1/21/21

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Data and Modeling Updates, "January 19, 2021 slide deck"

Jon Zelner, assistant professor of epidemiology, University of Michigan, phone interview, 1/21/21

NPR, "As Pandemic Deaths Add Up, Racial Disparities Persist — And In Some Cases Worsen," 9/23/20

POLITICO, "Which states had the best pandemic response?," 10/14/20

National Governors’ Association, "Summary of COVID-19 Health Equity Taskforces," accessed 1/21/21

Michigan Coronavirus Racial Disparities Task Force, "Interim Report," November 2020

Office of the Governor, "Executive Order No. 2020-55 Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities," signed 4/20/20

The Detroit Free Press, "Michigan coronavirus cases: Tracking the pandemic," accessed 1/21/21

Dawn Misra, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University, phone interview, 11/13/21

Dawn Misra, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University, phone interview, 1/22/21

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, accessed 1/21/21

Andy Levin, "MLK Jr. Day Youth Conference"

Congressman Andy Levin, Facebook post, 1/17/21

Census Bureau, 2019 ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates for Michigan, accessed 1/21/21

Analysis of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services coronavirus data

The Detroit Free Press, "'Southeast Michigan is burning': Michigan's coronavirus case count doubles every 3 days," 3/29/20

Census Bureau, 2019 ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates for Detroit, accessed 1/21/21

The Detroit Free Press, "Detroit is first US city to get 15-minute coronavirus tests," 4/2/20

The Detroit Free Press, "Drive-thru testing for the coronavirus to begin Friday in Detroit," 3/26/20

The Detroit Free Press, "How COVID-19 'clobbered' the U.P. infecting 1,400 kids in latest surge," 1/4/21

The Detroit Free Press, "Detroit has among the lowest rates of infection in Michigan, but not the lowest," 12/1/20

The Detroit Free Press, "'COVID-19 is surging across our state': Spectrum Health nearing capacity, CEO says," 11/11/20

The Detroit Free Press, "City of Detroit issues COVID-19 order that requires masks, social distancing," 10/9/20

Detroit Health Department, Emergency Order for Control of Epidemic, signed 10/9/20

The Detroit Free Press, "As coronavirus surges in Republican territory, so does rage over masks," 7/12/20

The Detroit Free Press, "Wearing a coronavirus mask isn't just a safety issue anymore. Now it's political," 5/15/20

Gallup, "Americans' Face Mask Usage Varies Greatly by Demographics," 7/13/20

Pew Research Center, "Most Americans say they regularly wore a mask in stores in the past month; fewer see others doing it," 6/23/20

Analysis of MI Safe Start Map data

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