Flint eliminates COVID-19 disparity among African Americans

Epidemiologist Debra Furr-Holden, PhD shared some data-based insight with ABC12
Published: Nov. 14, 2020 at 12:56 PM EST
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - As COVID-19 rages on in Michigan by smashing another daily case record Friday, there has been a major development with the death and infection rates of African Americans in the city of Flint.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer launched the Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities in April, chaired by Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist. At that time Michigan was one of the first states to start analyzing the data by race and its disproportionate effects on communities of color.

“We saw that while black people make up 14-percent of the state’s population, we’ve thus far made up about 40-percent of the people who’ve passed away from COVID-19," Gilchrist said in April.

Shortly after that, the Greater Flint Coronavirus Taskforce on Racial Inequities was created to address the problem in Flint and Genesee County. The partnership brought together stakeholders representing philanthropy, business, health and faith in the community.

African Americans are 60-percent of the population in Flint, but accounted for more than 80-percent of positive COVID-19 cases and nearly 100-percent of the COVID-19 deaths at the onset of the pandemic, but that has turned around drastically.

“The disparities that we saw both at the state and the county, and the city level for African Americans were alarming. Two to three times higher than the percentage that we were in the population,” said Dr. Debra Furr-Holden.

Debra Furr-Holden, PhD is an epidemiologist and associate dean for Public Health Integration at Michigan State University. The Flint native is also a member to each task force listed above.

She says the Greater Flint task force has a data use agreement with the city of Flint that has allowed them to track their progress. The data shows African Americans in Flint were accounting for 85-percent of positive COVID cases and 91-percent of deaths in March.

Furr-Holden considered the disproportionate numbers a call to action.

“At the local level we’ve made transformative strides also in eliminating racial disparities," Furr-Holden said.

By the end of September, the data showed that African Americans make up 38-percent of cases and 50-percent of deaths, which is a drastic drop from the spring. Those numbers are now an under-representation of the African American population in Flint.

Although the African American population in Genesee County at large is much smaller, she says the data also indicates a decrease in infection and death rates for African Americans countywide, too.

The State of Michigan also reported in September that the disparity gap was narrowing among the African American population statewide.

“The tide started to turn both in the state and in Genesee County and in the City of Flint in July," Furr-Holden said. "There was nothing special about July. What you find with a disease like COVID is that the work that you do in the weeks and months before will impact the cases and deaths and what you see in the current day.”

She says the biggest factor to closing the gap was removing barriers to testing, like payment, needing a prescription from a primary care doctor, or an I.D.

“Testing is critical. People being able to get identified as early as possible so they can recover and so they don’t infect others has been a critical part of our response strategy," Furr-Holden said.

Federal programs like enhanced federal unemployment and Medicaid expansion also created a way for people to shelter in place and to seek medical care.

Furr-Holden believes the level of equitable treatment was also enhanced with the announcement of the governor’s plan to implement implicit bias training in the health care profession, although the training has yet to begin.

“We’ve had very proactive leadership in the state and in the city of Flint," she said. "Our governor was one of the first to issue a stay at home order. Our mayor issued a citywide curfew before there was one death in the city of Flint.”

Mayor Sheldon Neeley is once again taking preventative steps to reduce the spread by announcing the closure of city hall Friday.

Now that case rates are on the rise again pretty much everywhere, including in Genesee County, does she expect the disparity to return?

“We did systematic and structural change to ensure that all citizens had equitable access to the resources and protections they needed to stay safe. The overall increases that we’ve seen in our communities at large and all across the nation I do believe are a function of us relaxing our requirements for people to mask up, relaxing stay at home orders," Furr-Holden said. “So I do think we are going to have to go back into some period of modified operations.”

She says African Americans are being tested more but their case positivity rate isn’t increasing at an alarming rate as it once did.

“We’ve got some hot spots in the northeast corner of Flint. We’ve got some hot spots in Flint Township and in certain parts of Grand Blanc,” she said. "It’s unfortunate because wearing a mask -- or I should say not wearing a mask -- has become a political statement.”

At the state level the task force is also dealing with eliminating the disparity in the Hispanic and LatinX community. They account for about 5.3-percent of the state’s population. At the outset of the pandemic, Furr-Holden says they represented 10.7-percent of positive cases. That’s down to about 9.2-percent now, but it is still an overrepresentation.

The LatinX death rate is going in the wrong direction. At the outset it was 2.8-percent, but now it is at 5-percent. That is an underrepresentation based on the total population in the state, but not the direction they want to be moving in.

“We’re now focusing efforts on how to best meet the needs of that population," Furr-Holden said.

She has no doubt there is still much work to do to slow the spread and eventually roll out a vaccine, but she believes this one crucial step in eliminating the disparity here means there is hope for what more can be done. The work done by each task force could serve as an example to other minority communities.

“The model that we used was not overly complicated. Multi-sector buy-in, all of the stakeholders at the table. That also includes the affected community. That’s what our citizens deserve, and we can and do serve as a model for other impacted communities,” Furr-Holden said. “We got on the ground floor and met community where they were and did everything that we could to meet their needs, and we can’t stop."

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