Genesee County, MI— In Jan. 2021, health officials reported that Black people in Flint no longer made up a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, a nationwide trend seen in minority communities since the onset of the pandemic.
The shift was thanks to grassroots efforts by community leaders and local health officials to eliminate racial, systemic inequalities that make minorities—particularly Black people— more susceptible to the virus.
But now, Black people in Flint are disproportionately contracting COVID once again.
Black residents account for 53% of Flint’s population but represented at least 67% of COVID cases in March, according to a recent report by the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions.
However, that rate may be much higher due to “unconfirmed gaps” in race data as over 50% of COVID cases in Genesee County are missing racial demographics, the report said.
This missing data may be contributing to the rise in racial disparities. Without it, health officials and policymakers cannot identify health and social inequities that put people of color at an increased for getting sick and dying from COVID.
“We need to know how this virus is affecting different communities and race data is a huge part of that to know what specific communities it’s affecting, and what resources those communities need now and also moving forward,” Kayleigh Blaney, deputy health officer for the Genesee County Health Department, said.
Typically, race is not reported with lab results and local health departments are tasked with retroactively collecting the information by calling each individual patient, Blaney said.
But as cases began to spike and vaccines became a priority, health departments simply had less time and fewer resources to allocate towards race data collection.
“Everybody is overburdened. Not collecting it on the front end is creating burden on the back end, and people are simply not able to keep pace,” Debra Furr-Holden, director of the FCHES and associate dean for Public Health Integration at Michigan State University, said.
Geographically, the missing race data is randomly distributed across Genesee County and isn’t central to one region, Rick Sadler, a geographer and assistant professor at the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University, said.
He and his team have been mapping COVID cases by zip code and have visually compiled the precent of unknowns by census tract for the county.
“If there was a huge geographic or racial disparity, it would show up in the map,” Sadler said.
Based on this information, health officials at the FCHES determined that neighborhoods with a higher percentage of Black residents actually have less missing race data, meaning that these residents “are not more likely to omit their race, or have their race omitted during data collection.”
Despite this, as cases continue to rise in Genesee County, missing race data and racial disparities will too. Between April 11-April 17, Genesee County reported 2,000 new COVID cases, an 8% increase from the previous week.
FCHES recommended that policymakers release race-related information “more immediately and in greater detail” so there is less guesswork abut where to place much-needed resources.
“The Health Department is being tasked with case investigation, contact tracing, and getting vaccines out. So, there’s a lot of competing interests right now in order to try and keep the community safe….We’re getting to the cases as quickly as we can. But right now, we’re getting upwards of 200 positive cases a day,” Blaney said.
For more information about case rates in Genesee County, visit GCHD’s website.
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