Michigan’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities identifying needs of vulnerable residents

FLINT, Michigan -- As covid cases continue to disproportionately impact minority communities in Michigan, a public task force was launched by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and signed into executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in APril to research and address racial disparities throughout the state. The task force is currently implementing programs and reviewing recommendations on how to mitigate the spread of the virus in communities of color.


On August 14, the task force launched the MI Mask Aid campaign, a project that partners with Ford Motor Company, that aims to provide four million masks to some of Michigan’s most vulnerable communities.


The MI Mask Aid initiative partners directly with community action agencies across that state to distribute the masks. The community action agency will then disperse the masks to residents, community centers and community stakeholders specifically targeting vulnerable neighbors.


Shama Mounzer, basic needs director at Wayne Metro Community Action Agency, a mask distribution center, said the community has responded well to the initiative because many families were concerned about how to be safe if they did not have access to masks.


“Access to PPE has been a concern for many households and our organization routinely receives calls from individuals specifically stating that masks are a need,” said Mounzer.


Working alongside Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, Gilchrist stated in a press release on August 14 that the task force was able to receive federal funding for the campaign to expand mask accessibility to communities of color with the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).


“The primary goal, because we are a community action agency, was to get it out to the most vulnerable populations,” said Jennifer Brozowski, program director of the Ottawa County Community Action Agency. “The agency is one of the many branches of the national nonprofit member organization that works within communities to provide health resources, employment training and connect families to greater opportunity. The Ottawa County Community Action Agency has been working as a distributing site for the MI Mask Aid campaign. The more people we see wearing masks the better.”


African Americans make up nearly 23 percent of Michigan’s Coronavirus confirmed cases and 40 percent of Coronavirus deaths, yet only account for 14 percent of the population.


“We knew COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting people of color and the Black community in Michigan in particular but we didn’t know why. However it did quickly become clear,” said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.


In June, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued an in-depth explanation detailing how implementing a mask will help slow the spread of the Coronavirus and recommending that all people wear masks in public to help minimize infections. Following this statement many states across the nation began to implement mask mandates, requiring all people in social environments outside of the home wear a mask.


According to Debra Furr-Holden, a Flint native, task force member, and associate dean for Public Health Integration at Michigan State University and director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions, the task force has devised a strategic communications plan for communities of color and issued a guidance letter to health clinicians and professionals on the importance of avoiding implicit bias.


Since its launch, Michigan’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities has also focused on stemming racial barriers delaying medical health care by expanding drive in and brick and mortar coronavirus testing locations to high risk communities and zip codes with dense minority populations. The task force has also implemented over 20 new testing sites throughout the state to ensure Michigan residents have access to proximal testing sites that do not require transportation.


Community partners such as churches, gyms, colleges, and community centers have also supported this initiative and worked alongside taskforce members in improving testing deployment.


“We have all the right people at the table,” Furr-Holden said.


The task force also modified the availability of tests to asymptomatic citizens. Michigan is also offering tests to family members of people who have tested positive.


“The thing about our work is that we're doing it to address COVID-19 disparities, but really with long term sustainable solutions to address health disparities,” Furr-Holden said.

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Read more articles by Brianna Nargiso.