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Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist On Coronavirus Racial Disparities

TOM GJELTEN, HOST:

It's April 12, Easter Sunday. Back on March 24, President Trump said he'd like the country opened up and raring to go by today. But that point is still a ways away. The coronavirus is still spreading. Americans are still dying - more than 20,000 so far. And public health officials say that while we're approaching the peak of the outbreak in some states, we're not there yet.

Meanwhile, unemployment is reaching Great Depression levels. Food banks around the country are overwhelmed, with hungry families waiting in their cars for hours, the lines stretching for miles in some places. The virus has hit minority and low-income communities the hardest. One place where that's evident is Michigan. In fact, the state has created a task force to focus specifically on racial disparities in the pandemic's impact. That task force is chaired by Michigan's lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist. And he joins us now from Detroit.

Lieutenant Governor, thanks for joining us on this Easter Sunday.

GARLIN GILCHRIST: Tom, thank you for having me. And Happy Easter to all the listeners who celebrate it.

GJELTEN: Same to you. And I hope you and your family are doing well.

GILCHRIST: We are. We're doing OK. I mean, I have to admit this has hit the state of Michigan very hard and my hometown of Detroit in particular. I mean, on a personal level, I have lost 15 people in my life to COVID-19 and have a number of others in my life who are positive or were quarantined, or some were hospitalized in the extended part of my family. So we're all working to get through this together. And we have to, you know, coordinate and stick together in order to make it work.

GJELTEN: Wow. We're sorry to hear that that has hit you in particular so hard. And, of course, the epicenter of the outbreak in Michigan is Detroit. Across the city, how bad is the situation there right now, lieutenant governor?

GILCHRIST: Well, I think people are quite anxious. You know, we took aggressive action through - Governor Gretchen Whitmer and I by issuing a stay-at-home, stay-safe order. And so certainly, people are working hard to mind that, but it's difficult.

I think - and particularly in communities like Detroit and black communities and communities of color, when things get tough and when there is a high-anxiety moment, we often come together to cope with it. And what is particularly dangerous about COVID-19 is that that coming together is what puts people at great risk of infection and possibly death. So it's caused people to try to invent new mechanisms for coping. And I think that everyone's just really trying to struggle to get through it.

GJELTEN: And this task force that you're directing, Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist, on racial disparities - what have you been able to figure out or learn so far about the disparity of impact in your city?

GILCHRIST: Well, the state of Michigan was one of the first states to report out COVID-19 test results and deaths by race. And what we have observed is that while black people make up 14% of the state of Michigan's population, we have accounted for 40% of the deaths. And so clearly, there is something going on with the mortality rate and when it comes to black people.

And so the task force is looking to find ways to intervene and to respond to that mortality rate directly in the context of COVID-19, but also recognizing that there are a number of factors that have contributed to poorer health outcomes in communities that are fighting poverty or communities of color across the state for a long time - things like social determinants of health, poverty, lack of consistent access to the health care system, having to do things in the context of this virus like take public transit to get to your critical infrastructure job.

GJELTEN: Well, what are some of the things that you can do? I mean, given those environmental and kind of structural factors, you know, what kind of mitigation is possible?

GILCHRIST: I think there are several things that are possible. First is making sure that we have as clear of an understanding of the problem and by data sharing and information sharing. There perhaps are particular interventions that can be taken to protect people who are riding public transportation in order to get to work or to get to critical resources like groceries.

I will say that one thing that is going to be critical in our interventions - and, frankly, in getting ahead of this pandemic for the entirety of our population - is more access to testing resources. We're testing more and more people every day. But we probably may need to have specific testing strategies for communities of color, particularly black communities in densely populated places like Detroit. We're going to need more so that we can truly have a sense of the community spread.

GJELTEN: Now, finally, the mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, spoke a few days ago about the tough days ahead and losing neighbors to the virus. But he also said there were glimmers of hope that social distancing may actually be working. Do you share that optimism?

GILCHRIST: Well, I share a confidence in the people of the state of Michigan, certainly, and that people are working as hard as they can and doing the best they can. Those who are able to stay home are indeed staying home and staying safe. And there has been some evidence that the policy is working, but it's not over. We are still, we believe, according to our models, some time away from the peak of this infection and the death here in the state of Michigan.

And so that is why we're trying to do everything we can to not only slow the spread but decrease the mortality rate and particularly decrease that mortality rate in places that are hit most hard and the most - populations that are hit most hard, which right now is black people in the state of Michigan.

GJELTEN: Well, that's Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist of Michigan.

Thanks so much for speaking with us, Lieutenant Governor. Good luck to you, and take care.

GILCHRIST: Tom, thank you for having me. Stay home, stay safe everyone. We'll save lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.