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Stateside Podcast: What COVID-19 taught us about racial disparity

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COVID-19 put the failings of the health care system in the limelight. In the harsh glow, legislators, community leaders, and health equity experts saw an opportunity to make systemic change. Dr. Phil Levy, director of the Center for Population Health Accountability for Wayne Health, is one of these people.

“Don't let a pandemic go to waste,” Dr. Levy said. “We've learned so much from how people can and are willing to receive care going forward, let's not force everyone back into an old system that just never worked in the first place.”

Levy is part of the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, a team assembled in April 2020 by Gov. Whitmer to target barriers that have long prevented communities of color from receiving adequate care. For three years now, the team has studied some of the causes of these disparities, and have come up with some solutions.

In 2022 the team released their recommendations, which aim to improve care in both hospital and primary care settings. Here’s a breakdown of some of their recommendations:

  • Improving infrastructure to better address ethnic and racial health disparities
    • Expand and focus on inclusive data collection 
    • Continue funding of mobile health units and neighborhood testing and vaccination sites
    • Improve language access to adhere with federal requirements
    • Build infrastructure to alert trusted community partners for additional dissemination of public health information
  • Prioritizing Primary Care in Michigan
    • Improve access to health insurance for all Michiganders
    • Increase use of Health Information Technology and data to assist with reduction of racial health disparities
    • Incentivize patients and providers to increase access to primary care 
    • Further utilize school-based clinics in order to expand pediatric care
    • Focus on educating communities on mental health resources and services 
    • Boost vaccination rates through use of statewide messaging services and campaigns
  • Zeroing in on Health Equity
    • Optimize and increase ethnic and cultural data collection
    • Implement and support the Maternal Infant Health & Equity Improvement Plan (MIHEIP)  and focus on “zero preventable deaths”
    • Analyze and reduce community exposure risks related to respiratory illnesses that may exacerbate COVID-19
    • Ensure access to high-speed internet connection in homes across Michigan 

The task force was created to find solutions to racial health disparities within the context of COVID-19, but the scope of its proposed actions have a much wider impact on the healthcare system in Michigan as a whole. With or without a global pandemic, health disparities and barriers to health access will continue to exist for patients of color in Michigan. And while the policy recommendations set in place by the task force would aim to change the system for years to come, the task force itself may not be around very much longer.

Dr. Renée Branch Canady is the CEO of the Michigan Public Health Institute, and serves on the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. Though there is no official end date to the task force, Dr. Canady says that it will most likely dissolve with the end of the federal health emergency declaration. When that time comes, it will be up to other groups and non-profit organizations like the Michigan Public Health Institute to continue health policy action throughout the state.

“One of the things that I've always seen and observed as a public health leader is when the emergency goes away, the need doesn't go away,” said Canady. “A number of these nonprofits that [the task force] worked with … we hope have greater grant-writing capacity now they had this experience. … And so [we’re] building capacity into partners and establishing relationships that we hope will continue throughout their time serving Michiganders in various ways.”

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Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.
Anna joined Stateside as an assistant producer in August 2021. She is a recent graduate of Michigan State University's School of Journalism and previously worked for The State News as an intern and student government reporter.