State COVID racial health disparities task gets national validation, issues recommendations

By Dennis Archambault

When the first reports revealed that minority groups were dying in disparate numbers compared to population groups in the initial weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, people working in community health were troubled but not surprised: people with poor health status have weakened immune systems and can’t fight off an infectious disease well as healthier groups. For greater society, it became news.

In Michigan, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilcrest organized the Michigan Coronavirus Racial Health Disparities Task Force. The work of this task force was recognized last year in the Research!America awards program and validated through a Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.

The 2021 Duke-Margolis study examined the task force’s ability to save lives through real time action and proposing solutions to address systemic contributors to racial disparities in health. The study reported that the Michigan task force made “substantial progress” in addressing COVID-19 disparities and making lasting structural changes. Key actions cited by the study include:

• Six million free masks were distributed.
• 24,000 free COVID tests were administered in underserved communities through mobile tests, drive-through, and walk-up testing.
• Racism was declared a public health crisis.
• Implicit bias training was required for all state employees
• Compliance with public health recommendations was increased within Black communities, which may have been the result of targeted media campaigns in those communities.
• The quality of reporting on racial disparities was improved.
• 30 community organizations were funded to address community needs associated with the disparate impacts the virus has had on communities of color.
• Social determinants of health were addressed by providing food boxes, hygiene products and other resources to quarantined people; the Eviction Diversion Program reduced housing insecurity; and supplemental nutrition assistance benefits for residents formerly convicted of drug felonies was increased.

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist said Gov. Whitmer knew the state. needed to act quickly to address the situation that was resulting in African American deaths at an alarming rate. Two years later, the work of the task force is a national model for responding to racial disparities and inequities in a crisis. On March 4, the issued a set of recommendations:

Strategic testing infrastructure

• Improve racial and ethnic data collection and use to address racial and ethnic disparities.
• Continue to fund neighborhood testing and vaccination sites and mobile health units to provide new and existing health and social services to marginalized communities.
• Require adherence to and monitor compliance of federal requirement to assist with meaningful language access.
• Establish a process and infrastructure to send alerts to key community partners and/or residents regarding COVID-19 infection rates and problem areas

Primary Care Connections.

• Decrease the number of uninsured and underinsured Michiganders.
• Fully leverage Health Information Technology and data to reduce racial health disparities.
• Implement quality criteria to incentivize primary care.
• Maximize the use of school-based clinics for expanded care delivery.
• Educate the public about mental health services.
• Increase inoculation rates across ages through statewide messaging campaigns.

Centering equity workgroup

• Increase culturally competent data collection.
• Support implementation of the Maternal Infant Health & Equity Improvement Plan’s (MIHEIP) strategic vision of zero preventable deaths – zero health disparities across its six primary priorities.

Additional recommendations

• Reduce COVID-19 exposure risks in environmental justice communities related to air quality.
• Ensure that every home and business in Michigan has access to an affordable, reliable high-speed internet connection that meets their needs.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.