Christy McDonald talks to Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist about the state’s new coronavirus task force on racial disparities and the last 40 days in Michigan.



Christy McDonald All right. Joining me now is Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist. It is really good to see you. How’s it going?

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Thank you, Christy. My family and I are doing well. My kids are adjusting to daddy and mama, working a lot more from home and trying to teach them math with gummy bears and things like that. But my family is doing well. This has been a tough set of days, though, for our communities. I have lost fifteen people in my life to cope in 19. And I know that a number of other people in my life and members, my extended family are in hospital. So we’re all trying to cope with this and fight against this together. And the Governor and I are really working hard on behalf of everybody.

Christy McDonald I’m sorry to hear that. You know, it is intensely personal and we have all have connections to people who lost their lives and others who are fighting for them right now. Talk to me a little bit about what the last 35 to 40 days has been like for you in the position of lieutenant governor and what we’ve all had to react to.

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Well, I think that this is certainly unlike anything that we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. I mean, I was actually having a conversation with my grandmother and she was talking about her father, my great grandfather, who lived to be one hundred and four years old in Alabama. And she talked about how in the latter years of his life he would talk about his or his mother passing away from the flu when she was 13.

And he was talking about the 1918 flu when that happened. So, I mean, this is just something that has been, you know, really, I think a challenge that unlike anything I’ve ever faced, what that’s meant is that people have also stepped up and come together in extraordinary and inspiring ways to contribute to our statewide response. No, I mean, I just this is the frontline workers where there’s people working at grocery stores courageously ensuring that people in our communities have food, whether it is the first responders who are so taken care of, people who are having emergencies. The people who are working with utility companies to make sure that we have lights and electricity and gas and Internet access. I mean, there are people who are putting themselves at greater risk of exposure so that others can stay at home and stay safe. And it’s those people that we’re thinking about. We’re making all the choices that we’re making to protect and promote public health and public safety. That’s our number one responsibility. And most of time, you’ll be understanding of that. But we critically understand that during this juncture in these last this last month or so.

Christy McDonald Yeah. I mean, we see today happening protests in Lansing. People in cars and holding up posters and railing against the orders that the governor has done. What has your reaction been to that showing today? Obviously, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of the stuff on social media.

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Well, my first reaction even before this was that people certainly can and should exercise that first amendment rights. They just need to do so safely and responsibly and not putting themselves or others at risk of contracting COVID-19. It appears that people have been doing that thus far. But I know this is tough, like we’ve made choices we never thought we’d had to make. We’re confronting things we never thought we had to confront. And it’s putting a lot of people under a lot of stress because this is scary. You know, people don’t know if they have this virus because you can carry it for two weeks without even knowing it. Keep it on notice, people around the map. People don’t know what this means for our communities and how we’re going to interact with one another going forward. And so I think a lot of people are just yearning for some sense of normalcy to return. And I believe that we will establish a new normal here in the state of Michigan. It’s going to take some time to get there, because, you know, whether it’s talking about our economy, you’re talking about small businesses. We’re putting place as you’re putting in place measures to protect those. But we have to recognize that people come first, that our people are our economy and that we can rethink and restart and we’re working on plans to do that. But none of that happens if people are not confident that they are safe when they leave their homes. And every community in the state of Michigan, they won’t patronize a business that they don’t feel it’s safe to go to. And so that’s why we’re making sure that we are taking as aggressive as possible such right now so that we can, frankly, had this this this unprecedented action last for as little time as possible.

Christy McDonald I want to talk about now this task force that you are heading up on racial disparities, that I want to take a step back and ask you, when did it hit you that this task force needed to be made up and it needs to be made up quickly and there needed to be some action taken? What was that last trigger point that you said? All right. This is what we need to do.

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Well, so in the context of the pandemic, I mean, even before that, we know that there have been negative health outcomes have been happening in ways that make racial disparities very clear in our communities across the state and across the country for generations, unfortunately. And our administration has tried to be responsive to that.

There are healthy moms, healthy babies initiative or poverty task force and things like that. But as Michigan was one of the first systems, one of the few states to report its coronavirus, test results and deaths out by racial and ethnic lines, it became clear that there is clearly a difference in the disparity about how this is impacting people of color and black people in particular. So we saw that while black people make up 14 percent of the population, the state of Michigan is accounted for, 40 percent of the people who have died.

So it wasn’t seeing that trend and seeing that that trend has sustained itself over a set of days. We knew that we needed to act and act quickly. In Michigan, frankly is a national leader here. There’s only one other state that established a group that is looking at this problem, specifically, we’re pulling together experts from all different expertise and walks of life, whether it is epidemiologist and infectious disease experts, experts on medical bias, but also people who are representing the faith community and the labor community. Because a lot of those frontline jobs that I spoke to earlier are union jobs are disproportionately held by people of color. But there are interventions that we can put on the ground in the street right now to keep those people more safe, to keep people safe or relying on public transportation, even in the midst of this crisis, to make sure that people have access to testing.

And actually the test is already taking action to work with Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun doomed to expand access to testing greatly, which will allow us to better have our arms around community spread, in particular in communities of color like the city of Detroit. So we’re taking action immediately, which I think is unique. Most task forces, they do their work and then they develop a report. We’re taking action on an ongoing basis.

Already, starting on Monday, we’re going to be releasing announcing our actions that we’re taking on at least a weekly basis to make sure that we can intervene as quickly as possible, because every day is another set of lives that could be lost that we can prevent.

Christy McDonald So tell me exactly who is on the task force? It’s going to be 15 to 20 members?

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan So it’s a little over 20 people. We tried to again, reach from a cross-section of the community. So on the medical and public health side, we have folks like Dr. Audrey Gregory, who is the head of the Detroit Medical Center. Dean Rasch from the Michigan State School of Nursing. Again, we have epidemiologist from inside and outside of state government and infectious disease experts. We have faith leaders are well. Reverend Solomon Kinloch, we have Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, who represents some of the state areas in the state that have been most deeply affected by this.

We have Ray Curry representing the labor movement. He’s with UAW, again, because so many people who have union jobs are deeply impacted by this directly with participation from nearly every state agency that has to do with our state wide response to ensure that weather is everything from budget and treasury to licensing or regulatory affairs to small business supports, that we are making sure we have things that can impact our communities. And, of course, chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun doing the Department of Health and Human Services are represented as well. So we tried to have a cross section…I mean, we have community leaders such as Maureen Taylor, who’s representing the perspective of seniors and homeless advocates. We have people representing young professionals. So it’s really tried to be a pretty broad cross-section.

Christy McDonald It is sometimes some of this also comes down to policy and it comes down to policy decisions that have been made long ago that have adversely impacted the black community in our state. Do you hear from and we talk about working across the aisle. Do you hear from other members, the Republican Party in the legislature about some kind of policy initiatives that you can take, whether it look at health care, whether it looks at the access to a better food supply in certain areas of the city? 

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Well, there are certainly members of the Michigan legislature who care deeply about this. I’m representing the Detroit caucus is representive Sherry Gay-Dagnogo on the task force and representing the Michigan legislative black caucuses, state Senator Marshall Bullock. So we do have a legislative perspective that is visible there. And I believe that there are Republicans in Michigan who do care about this issue because they don’t want to see their neighbors and their friends and the people go to school with their kids, get sick either. So we’re looking forward to working with them to bring forward ideas. COVID-19, does not respect politics. COVID-19, is something that is impacting all of our communities. And none of us are safe because of any sort of partisan affiliation.

And so it’s important that we have a strong statewide response to this that we make testing widely available across the state. And that is why we’ve been advocating so fiercely with the federal government to make sure that we have more testing kits and testing capacity testing components here in the state of Michigan, working to procure them from the federal government as well as procure them from private sector sources around the country and around the world. And that’s why we’ve been able to ramp up testing in the city and in strike sites across the state. And we’re going to continue to do that as we widen the testing protocols so we can better respond to this virus.

Christy McDonald Do you think that you’ve been able to get an accurate number count in terms of people who have been affected by this? I talked to Wayne County executive Warren Evans the other day who was concerned that maybe they don’t even have accurate data, because sometimes when you’re looking at forms and people aren’t filling out race or they’re not able to like 30 percent of the cases they have unknown. So do you believe that you’ve been able to accurately count and or if not be able to change or put something in place that you’re going to have a more accurate picture of who is actually affected?

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Well, we’re working to improve that data. Because, yes, there still are a high proportion of people or height to higher proportion of cases that have been race unknown, and we need to understand that. And again, the DHHS team is going to be working with hospital systems and county health directors to ensure that we’re getting is accurate data as possible.

Another action you’re going to see from this task force is supporting the leadership of Congresswoman Morris and the Michigan delegation that will call on the federal government to also report out consistently and require reporting on race and ethnicity, something that does not happen across the board when it comes to federal public health data. So there is more that we can learn and the better the data and information, the more informed the choices that we make are from a policy perspective and from a protocol perspective, because we’re trying to act immediately to save lives. So I think that there’s can always be improvement. You know, I’m an engineer, I’m a data guy, so I care very deeply about us having accurate and high quality information and everyone taskforces online. And that being a priority as some of the early action you see is going to it’s going to be in that vein, I’m sure.

Christy McDonald [Yeah. And I think people appreciate early action it or at least being able to say this week we are taking these steps forward with the long-term picture, looking at environmental justice, looking at the communities of color disproportionately in areas of pollution, looking at water shutoffs. And those are some of the bigger health pictures that need to be addressed. Also coming out of this.

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Absolutely. I mean, COVID-19 has proven to be deadly for people who have particular sets of either underlying conditions or environment or environmental factors that are contributing to poor health beginnings and outcomes, frankly. And so when we’re looking at those social determinants of health, we’re also contributors that we want to wrap our arms around in the longer term. But a legislator actually shared with me today a study from Harvard that showed that if people had asthma or had some other sort of lived in an environment that had a significant air pollution, like, for example, southwest Detroit and Dearborn, they are much more highly susceptible to infection with the Corona virus.

And so these are the kinds of things we need to think about, what the policy responses are both in the immediate and in the long term to make sure our people are healthier. We have seen that COVID-19 tends to impact people more deeply when they have asthma, when they have diabetes, when they have high blood pressure. And these unfortunately, our ailments that disproportionately impact black people and other people of color. And so these things are connected. And we believe that if we can design interventions in the short term, they will inform interventions that we can make in the longer term to address these racial disparities.

Christy McDonald Who else are you looking at across the country that you would pick up the phone and say, hey, I want to see what they’re doing in their state or in their region and talk to them about it?

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Well, thankfully, thanks to the National Lieutenant Governor’s Association, I have a very strong network of my counterparts across the country. And this racial disparity has shown itself in a number of other places, cities and states, places like Chicago or New Orleans. And I have very strong relationships with lieutenant governors of those states, respectively. And I actually called those to offer another reason that this is bipartisan. Lieutenant governor of Louisiana is a Republican, lieutenant governor of Illinois is a Democrat. And we are all working together because we want to save the people who we serve and make sure that we can put in place policies, practices, protocols and programs to make sure that we can address these needs quickly. But I think also people are going to look to Michigan’s leadership again, this sort of task force looking at this in real time, all these this and one other state, that’s New York. We believe that things that we learn will be exportable to other places so we can save lives in Michigan and around the country.

Christy McDonald My last question. You have kids. I have kids. I think a lot about how this generation of children will be forever changed by what they are experiencing right now and by what we’re going through. How what do you hope for this next generation of kids living through something like this? How do you hope that they will be changed?

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Well, you know, two things. This is hitting kids in a real way. I have twin 6 year olds and my 6 year old daughter came to my wife about a week ago and asked if we were still going to have Christmas. So kids are thinking about this in a real and deep way. And we need to make sure where we’re having age appropriate conversations with our children about what’s happening because they have questions and they’re stressed out. They’re home from school and they don’t really understand why. And we need to talk with them about this. So I would say a couple of things. One is making sure that we have empathy for everyone in this time. This is unprecedented. People who are able to be home and work from home are doing it in a way they never would have imagined before.

Educators are learning how to facilitate learning at a distance. You know, one of the things that I’m working on is making sure that children across the state have access to the Internet and access to Internet enabled devices so they can still learn things that that access is very stratified based on urban versus rural divide as well as socioeconomic divides. So working to make sure. They can help with that, but ultimately, I believe that the irony of all of this social distancing is that it actually reveals how connected we actually are. It reveals how reliant we are upon one another. It reveals that the individual choices we make and the actions that we take impact our communities collective well-being. So I think on the other side of this, we are actually going to hug one another a little tighter. We’re going to check in on one another more often and a little bit more substantively. We’re going to look out for one another. We’re going to make sure our people are Okay. And I think that that will lead to a better connected community. And I think that is a beautiful thing. That will be the beautiful sunshine to emerge from this dark side that we you’re going through right now. But we will get through it by working together, by being empathetic with one another and by focusing on the solutions that we can make happen. And so I am optimistic because the people of Michigan are resilient. The people of my city of Detroit are tough and strong. And we can get through anything. And we’re gonna get through this, too. We’re going to remember those in our lives who we’ve lost. And we’re going to honor them by being better connected as can be.

Christy McDonald Yeah, I think that empathy is a very important thing. Lieutenant Governor Garland Gilchrist. It’s good to see you. I hope your extended family continues to recover and be well.

Garlin Gilchrist, Lt. Governor of Michigan Thank you very much. You’d be welcome when everyone please stay safe.

Christy McDonald Thank you.