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Demographic data for COVID-19 shows racial disparities higher in Michigan, but more data needed

person holding test tubes with blue gloves on
Trust "Tru" Katsande

A study from the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California Berkeley ranks Michigan as its fourth most racially disparate states when it comes to COVID-19 deaths. Michigan ranks sixth in racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates.

The study shows an interactive heat tracking map of racial disparities from state to state. The map looks at the racial makeup of the population, and then how that population is represented in the rates of COVID infection and deaths. For example, in Michigan, U.S. Census data shows black people make up 14% of the state's population, but account for 32% of COVID cases and 41% of COVID related deaths.

But the map and the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The information used to create the map comes from The COVID Tracking Project, which gathers data from the states as it comes in. The quality of data varies from state to state: 10 states don’t even record the race of the confirmed cases, and 15 states don’t record race when they record deaths. And the states that do provide this data don’t record demographics for every single case.

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden is an epidemiologist who studies health disparities at Michigan State University. She’s also a member of Michigan’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. Furr-Holden says that Michigan is doing relatively well, reporting race data for 82% of its cases and 95% of its deaths.

“The disparities are able to even be recognized because they did the first foundational thing, which is they’re actually collecting that data and then they’re being transparent and reporting out on it," Furr-Holden said.

Michigan also has a coronavirus task force investigating the causes of the disparities and recommending steps to help prevent more deaths.

She says Michigan has other issues with data collection, even if it has been relatively thorough and transparent with its data so far.

“We’ve got to do a better job of collecting the type of data related to exposure, testing, cases, and deaths, so we can really understand the problem and any disparities underneath.”

Furr-Holden says that ideally, the state should have been gathering data on race and other demographics when they were testing. She says it’s likely that there's a huge disparity in testing as well, but there’s insufficient data to make that statement.

“When we first rolled out testing, people weren’t even recording the race of the person being tested. So we can’t even say if there’s a disparity in testing. We see this big disparity in outcome, but how many African Americans walked around, asymptomatic, should’ve been being tested because they were in a high exposure position, and were not [tested]," she said.

She says this puts us at a disadvantage now, saying, “Now we don’t even have the data because no one bothered to say, ‘Oh, well part of the problem is African Americans are less likely to get tested even if they’re in a high exposure position," she said.

The study lists the lack of data as one of its limitations, and says that more information will help solidify clear patterns in racial disparities.

Furr-Holden says she’s worried about alarming statistics dis-incentivizing states from fully reporting racial and demographic data.

“What we don’t want to ever do is discourage states from not being forthcoming about that. The states that have the biggest disparities are also the states where we have the best reporting," she said.

Michigan Radio listeners, readers, and reporters are rising to the challenge every day. If you can, please support essential journalism during this crisis.

Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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