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Michigan advocates for vaccine equity, but it’s unclear whether it’s delivering

people wearing masks walking down the street
Detroit has expanded its vaccination program since January. Seniors, teachers, clergy and front line workers are now eligible. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

*Data included in this story is from Tuesday, Feb. 9. The City of Detroit and State of Michigan continuously make changes to their coronavirus vaccine dashboards* 

The City of Detroit has vaccinated more than 36,000 residents from coronavirus in one month.

According to City officials, of the vaccination recipients who chose to share their race and ethnicity, 70 percent are Black.


That’s important in Detroit, a city whose population is 78 percent Black and had over 1,500 residents succumb to coronavirus within the first five months of the pandemic. Detroiters learned hard lessons early and took safety precautions seriously, helping the city earn the lowest rate of coronavirus cases in Michigan by autumn.

But that success wasn’t by chance, as the City and State strongly encouraged (and forced) safety precautions into the new year. As vaccines became increasingly available, leaders like Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, a Detroiter, are vocal about ensuring vulnerable populations are prioritized. Even more, both governmental entities are coordinating on social equity messaging while learning to acknowledge gaps in care that have historically perpetuated racial health disparities in urban communities.  

The City began to offer free drive-through coronavirus testing in March 2020 and has since conducted more than 70,000 tests. The City also offered transportation to its testing sites, a service about 1,700 Detroiters took advantage of.

Initially, Detroit received fewer coronavirus vaccines than surrounding areas and, unlike the suburbs, Detroit residents typically don’t have access to a primary care provider or larger health supports. However, with help from the State, Detroit expanded its free vaccination program to include more residents each week. Following State guidance, older adults were prioritized, and 9,000 residents aged 65 and older were vaccinated by Wednesday. Various essential workers have been included week after week, from first responders to educators, clergy and funeral home employees, and most recently, it was expanded to employees of the food and beverage industry.

The CDC shared nationwide data last summer that showed Black Americans were dying from coronavirus at a higher rate than others in part to underlying medical conditions, which can stem from racial health and socioeconomic disparities.

City and State officials acknowledged the disparities early, but vaccine recipients’ race and ethnicity data have yet to be made public on the City and State’s digital vaccination dashboards. Detroit’s dashboard initially included general occupation data in three groups: health care providers, teachers and school support staff, and first responders. Other vaccine recipients fell into an “All other qualified” category, which has been temporarily removed as the city makes updates to its data collection. Residents are asked when they book their appointment and again at the TCF Center while getting vaccinated to share their race or ethnicity. It remains unclear how many vaccinated Detroiters participated in sharing this information, but of those who responded to the question, 70 percent were Black.

Last week, BridgeDetroit filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the City’s Health Department to learn demographic data of those who received the vaccine. Detroit officials say they plan to report the data on a “real time basis” once the data is reliable and accurate.

Gilchrist, who leads the State’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, said the government is also working on data infrastructure to report demographic data as more Michiganders get vaccinated.

“We’re making sure that our infrastructure can actually support collecting this data, which unfortunately has never been instrumented to be able to do,” he said. “I think the fact that race and identity factors haven’t been adequately taken into consideration is the design of our health care system in the past.”

The taskforce’s work was analyzed last week in a Duke University study for making “significant and sustainable progress toward its goal of reducing health-based racial disparities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s press team.

The study applauds Whitmer’s administration for distribution of masks, declaring racism a public health crisis, requiring implicit bias training for state employees, administering coronavirus tests, and providing funding to community-based organizations through the Rapid Response Initiative.

The initiative has made about $17 million in grants available to address immediate needs during the pandemic. Almost $5 million was shared with Detroit for Black and Brown residents to expand their access to telehealth, support emergency shelters for quarantine purposes, and distribute fresh food, among other initiatives.

The State has received flak from community advocates for the lack of safety protocols in place within jails and prisons. Gilchrist said every incarcerated person within the Michigan Department of Corrections system over the age of 65 and with underlying health conditions was vaccinated last week.

Gilchrist, who says he has lost 27 people to coronavirus, said it keeps him up at night knowing that people are still getting sick every day. Even though he says the State has done a lot to prevent the spread, support is needed for the state’s proposed coronavirus recovery plan.

“I don’t want anyone to go to the hospital, I don’t want anyone to lose their life,” he said. “And so, it’s my responsibility as the lieutenant governor working on protecting (Michiganders) to promote public health and public safety, and to create the conditions for everyone in our state to have a chance at success. And right now, that means everyone wearing a mask and social distancing.”

Gilchrist said people getting vaccinated will allow the state to move forward.

How coronavirus information is being shared has also been important. Whitmer recently announced the creation of the Protect Michigan Commission, which has almost 100 members, including the Detroit Pistons’ Blake Griffin, to educate residents who may feel hesitant toward getting the vaccine.

Data from the University of Michigan last fall highlighted Black and Hispanic residents were more reluctant to get the vaccine and wanted reliable information from trusted sources. Religious leaders the Rev. Wendell Anthony and Bishop Edgar Vann joined City officials during a press conference on Tuesday to encourage Detroiters to get the vaccine. Anthony even shared the names of prominent Black doctors, like the state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, and their work to combat the virus to encourage more Black Detroiters to get vaccinated.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced on Tuesday that two Meijer stores will provide 2,500 doses to customers and staff this week. The City has partnered with Anthony and Vann’s churches, Fellowship Chapel and Second Ebenezer, respectively, to vaccinate up to 1,000 older adults every Saturday for the next month.

Acknowledging that not every Detroiter has access to reliable transportation, the City offered rides to coronavirus testing sites in 2020, and Duggan has announced a new ride program to the TCF Center for vaccinations. Residents must request a ride when making their vaccine appointment and can be picked up and dropped off anywhere within the city. Duggan said the cost of transportation is $2 per person, but the fee will be waived for residents who can’t afford the fee.

Because older adults are still being prioritized, the City is also visiting senior care centers, senior housing complexes and homeless shelters to distribute vaccines. So far, 1,300 older adults have been vaccinated at senior living centers and 826 people at homeless shelters.

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