Who pays any attention to the Lieutenant Governor of your state? Here in Pennsylvania we have John Fetterman who is fun to follow with his tough guy persona, open support of  marijuana reform, and interesting wife stories. One Lt. Gov that should be on your radar is Garlin Gilchrist from Michigan. The work he’s doing with COVID-19 is having a tremendous impact on the black community in his state. 

Gilchrist is a black man which made me curious how many black Lt. Govs our country has had. To my surprise there are currently 6 black Lt. Govs in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland and one was just elected in North Carolina. Between 1979 and 2019 there have been 10 others. Between 1871 and 1877 there were four more. Unlike a Vice President who usually has a great chance to become the next president, only Douglas Wilder of Virginia, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, and fan favorite P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana (1872) went from Lt. Gov to Governor.  

The first political campaign I ever worked on was during my time in Denver when I joined the late Joe Rogers in his run for Lt. Gov. It was exciting to see him win, and as friends, he gave me a close up look at how state government operates out there…and it wasn’t pretty. Personal and political conflicts with Governor Bill Owens kept him off the reelection ticket in 2002.

There’s an obvious great working relationship between Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov Garlin Gilchrist. Together, they immediately recognized that COVID-19 and people of color might be problematic and went to work to come up with the only government led response that has drastically impacted minority health consequences. Back in May, there was a hint that the federal government was going to come up with a targeted response to racial and ethnic minority groups who were disproportionately affected by adverse COVID-19 outcomes. The CDC issued a document posted on its website recommending that people from minority communities get priority for testing. Three days later, the language was removed and so were any subsequent attempts to address racial disparities due to COVID-19. 

“The governor’s ability to immediately move as data became available has been critical to saving the lives of some of our most vulnerable residents.”

Lt. Gov Gilchrist

If you read today’s headline in the Washington Post, they are still flaunting…’Racial, ethnic minorities continue to die from covid-19 at much higher rates, Post analysis shows. While overall fatality rates have plummeted since the spring, experts say many of the deaths in minority communities are preventable (Washington Post 11/21/20). But, if you follow what they’re doing in Michigan, it’s a much different story. 

Garlin Gilchrist II, a Detroit native, formed one of the nation’s first state racial disparities task forces on COVID-19 back in April. Made up of 23 community organizers, doctors and other experts, the group focused not only on boosting testing and contact tracing, but also tailoring messages on mask-wearing and other public health precautions to African American communities. It also addressed broader systemic issues, such as access to primary care, and helping those in rural areas access telemedicine.

And it’s working.

When state epidemiologists ran the numbers again in September, they found a huge change: Black residents who in April accounted for 29.4 percent of cases and 40.7 percent of deaths now made up only 8 percent of cases and 10 percent of deaths — very similar to their percentage in the population.

These days, whites in Michigan are dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate than black folks. To my knowledge, black folks still have the same pre-exisitng conditions.

The blue line has fallen over time to match the others meaning black folks are dying far less than they did in the early days of the pandemic in Michigan

Same with the new cases of COVID-19. Black folks are now in line with the rest of the population

“I think the reason we have been able to make progress is we chose to focus on it.” 

Lt. Gov Gilchrist

I don’t see that type of focus anywhere else. Even when you consider the fact that their task force started in April and provides a lot of available documentation that describes what they did, how they did it, and the results they’ve accomplished, I don’t see anyone following their playbook. Hence, we get today’s headline in the Washington Post. 

Gilchrist says, ‘Early in the pandemic, COVID-19 racial disparities were thought to be attributable primarily to factors like disproportionality in pre-existing and chronic health conditions among African Americans. We know now that pre-existing health conditions only accounted for 10-15% of the racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths. Two of the most significant factors driving disparities in COVID-19 deaths were disproportionate occupational exposure faced by African Americans — who are overrepresented in high-demand, low-control, frontline worker positions. These occupational exposures then gave way to increased residential exposure in predominantly African American communities and in African American households. Once infected, systematic unfairness and unconsciousness biases that African Americans face in our health care system further marginalized them and resulted in things like bed rationing and increased chances of being turned away from hospitals during the earlier stages of the pandemic.

The Task Force charge became clearer: develop and provide solutions that match the level of the problems. We started to identify and remove barriers to testing, advocating for community testing sites that eliminated the need for a primary care physician prescription, health insurance coverage, or a government-issued identification. The results have been astounding — African Americans are now underrepresented in both COVID-19 cases and deaths.’

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. 

It would be so refreshing to see some kind of task force working in this area that focused on COVID-19’s racial disparities. We hear local government saying they are ‘staying ahead of the curve’ but from the data, the train is off the tracks. 

With all the available resources in a 20 mile radius of Chester, PA, including medical universities, colleges, hospitals, and health care companies, it seems like a waste to not pick off a few of the experts to see if anything can be done similar to what Michigan is pulling off.

Here’s the members of the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. Check out who they are and where they’re from.

Chair: Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist

MDHHS Staff: Director Robert Gordon or his designee, and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun

Governor appointees:

  • Brandi Nicole Basket, D.O., Clinton Township; chief medical officer for Meridian Health Plan Michigan Market
  • Matthew L. Boulton, M.D., Ann Arbor; senior associate dean for Global Public Health and director of the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program at the University of Michigan
  • Renée Branch Canady, Ph.D., Lansing; chief executive officer of the Michigan Public Health Institute
  • Denise Brooks-Williams, Detroit; senior vice president and chief executive officer of the Henry Ford Health System North Market 
  • Dessa Nicole Cosma, Detroit; executive director of Detroit Disability Power
  • Connie Dang, Jenison; director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and special assistant for Inclusive Community Outreach at Grand Valley State University
  • Marijata Daniel-Echols, Ph.D., Farmington Hills; program officer at W.K. Kellogg Foundation
  • Debra Furr-Holden, Ph.D., Flint; epidemiologist and associate dean for Public Health Integration at Michigan State University, and director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions
  • Audrey E. Gregory, Ph.D., Franklin; chief executive officer of the Detroit Medical Center 
  • Whitney Griffin, Detroit, director of marketing and communications for the Downtown Detroit Partnership 
  • Bridget G. Hurd, Southfield; senior director of diversity and inclusion at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
  • Curtis L. Ivery, Ph.D., Detroit; chancellor of Wayne County Community College District 
  • Solomon Kinloch, Jr., Oakland Township; senior pastor at Triumph Church in Detroit
  • Jametta Y. Lilly, Detroit; chief executive officer of the Detroit Parent Network
  • Curtis Lipscomb, Detroit; executive director of LGBT Detroit 
  • Mona Makki, Dearborn; director of the ACCESS Community Health and Research Center.
  • Alycia R. Meriweather, Detroit; deputy superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District
  • Randolph Rasch, Ph.D., East Lansing; professor and dean of the Michigan State University College of Nursing
  • Celeste Sanchez Lloyd, Grand Rapids; community program manager for Strong Beginnings at Spectrum Health and a fellow in the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
  • Jamie Paul Stuck, Scotts; Tribal Council chairman and member of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Tribal Council
  • Maureen Taylor, Detroit; state chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization
  • LaChandra White, Allen Park; director of the UAW Civil and Human Rights Department.
  • M. Roy Wilson, M.D., Detroit; president of Wayne State University

It all comes down to political will and commitment.