LANSING, Mich.—Across the nation, COVID-19 is infecting tens of thousands of people daily, but it's impacting communities of color particularly hard. A new study conducted by a team of epidemiologists and clinicians found while Black Americans represent just 13.4% of the U.S. population, they make up more than half of all novel coronavirus cases, and nearly 60% of deaths nationwide and 40% in Michigan. Two WMU alumni are helping lead the charge to address the troubling disparity.
Dr. Renée Branch Canady, who is CEO of the Michigan Public Health Institute and Celeste Sanchez Lloyd, Community Program Manager at Strong Beginnings, are among a diverse group of two dozen medical professionals, health and community leaders appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. Led by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, the group is tasked with developing strategies to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color in Michigan.
"This virus is holding a mirror up to our society and reminding us of the deep inequities in this country,” Whitmer said in a news release. “From basic lack of access to health care, transportation and protections in the workplace, these inequities hit people of color and vulnerable communities the hardest. This task force will help us start addressing these disparities right now as we work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan."
It's a task Canady has been preparing for her entire career. Having served in a number of capacities in local and state government as well as higher education, she says she's honored to apply what she's learned and experienced to advance the task force's agenda. Canady and Sanchez Lloyd both earned a master's degree in public administration from WMU.
"There's one thing to see a problem and there's another thing to seize the problem as an opportunity," says Canady, whose master's degree in public administration had a health emphasis—a degree she says set the trajectory of her public health career. "I think we're really endeavoring to seize this opportunity and, if we do things well, it improves systems and situations for many Michiganders beyond COVID-19."
One of the biggest challenges facing the task force is time. The group is working at a fast clip, meeting twice a week. Immediate issues members are working to address include examining COVID-19 testing and working on a strategy to implement a comprehensive program, as well as increasing access to primary care.
"The longer it takes, the more lives are impacted," Canady says. "We are working to identify effective and expedient solutions to protect the lives of Michiganders who've been affected disproportionately by this pandemic."
Public health issues are inherently difficult because they play out in public, says Canady, and they can often lead to an overly cautious—and slower—approach as health professionals double back on discussions before taking action. In an urgent pandemic situation, they don't have that luxury.
The fight is personal for Canady. While her entire career has focused on cultural competence, health disparities and health inequities, the loss of her own infant son heightened both her understanding of and commitment to the issue.
"As a young African American mother, I learned that college-educated black women were more likely to experience an infant death than white women who had not completed high school," she says. "My own experience with infant mortality and the memory of my son gave me a passion and purpose that has allowed me to fight for the well-being of communities and people who have often been marginalized or oppressed in our society."
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