After COVID-19 hit Detroit hard, state officials waged an information war to try and stop it

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Angry and frustrated that a woman who made no effort to cover her coughing as she entered his bus, Jason Hargrove, a veteran Detroit transit driver, agonized during the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis.  

Through a Facebook live post, he declared: “For us to get through this and get over this, y’all need to take this seriously.” Hargrove pleaded on March 21 about people who were not wearing protective masks: “There’s folks dying out here because of this shit.”

Four days later, his body had been attacked by the virus that can bring about a dry cough, soaring body temperature, extreme chills, and raging body aches. On April 3, Hargrove had become one of the more than 5,800 documented COVID-19 deaths in Michigan.

He was only 50 years old.

Blacks are 40% of Michigan COVID-19 deaths. Officials want to know why.  

To be sure, March was a devastating month. The state’s first coronavirus deaths were recorded on March 18, according to Michigan health officials. It got so bad in Detroit that Hargrove’s fellow bus drivers, at one point, refused to go to work. They feared coming into close contact with hundreds of people during an eight-hour shift. 

The prospect of no public buses in the Motor City was significant. Only two-thirds of Detroiters (63%) own or share a vehicle with someone in their household, according to a 2017, University of Michigan study, while only one-third (34%) do not.

Fast forward 80 days.

Although Michigan is up to more than 58,000 coronavirus cases, the rate of new infections has slowed even as testing has increased. 

COVID-19 cases in Detroit | City of Detroit chart

Hospitals in Detroit and Southeast Michigan — the epicenter of the crisis — are no longer overflowing with COVID-19 patients. Detroit has 11,224 cases and 1,399 deaths, but has seen a pronounced downward trend since early-to-mid April.

Given that progress, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week lifted the statewide COVID-19 stay-home order in effect since March 24 and many businesses and government services have begun to re-open. 

But how did we get here? The Advance looked at the efforts of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), specifically in metro Detroit.

One way that DHHS tried to stop the virus’ spread was deploying its staff, communications professionals and key stakeholders on the ground in the Detroit area to carry out the effort. Officials say that onsite approach helped significantly lower the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths.

COVID-19 deaths in Detroit | City of Detroit chart

“We saw the need for a major media campaign and outreach campaign that would reach people with consistent messages and effective messages about the importance of social distancing,” said DHHS Director Robert Gordon. 

The first two cases were diagnosed in Michigan on March 10. The week of March 22 marked the beginning of what would become the largest surge in Michigan’s COVID-19 cases, according to DHHS. From March 22 to 29, the number of COVID-19 cases jumped from 1,035 to 5,486 and deaths rose from eight to 132.

During the month of March, and at the time of Hargrove’s plea, little was known about coronavirus, especially in minority communities. Some African Americans, for example, posted misinformation on social media platforms like Facebook that Blacks were immune from coronavirus. “That’s a white disease,” one posted. 

Virtually no one — whites, Blacks, Browns or others — wore masks and gloves, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not recommend such measures in the early days. Social distancing protocols did not exist.

‘Damn, I’ll be dead by then’: Detroit COVID-19 survivors talk about waiting for tests and the virus’ toll 

However, as it turned out, the African-American community in Michigan was disproportionately affected. In fact, by mid-April, Blacks represented 33% of the state’s total COVID-19 cases and 40% of the confirmed deaths related to coronavirus. Detroit, which is 80% African American, was especially rocked by the virus. Mayor Mike Duggan began holding daily press conferences to report the grim statistics.

Michigan had already taken several steps to combat COVID-19. However, DHHS officials quickly recognized they needed to do more to slow the pace of the rapidly spreading disease, especially among African Americans in Detroit. Three state legislators from Detroit contracted it. State Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) and State Rep. Tyrone Carter battled with COVID-19 in March. State Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) likely died from it on March 29.

One of the biggest challenges for state health officials was trying to get factual information to residents about COVID-19 and how to avoid getting it. That’s a challenge, as what we’ve known about the disease has changed significantly since it first hit Michigan. 

And trying to reach Detroiters during a time of crisis posed its own problems.

Part of the Michigan Department of Human Services’ COVID-19 public service campaign in Detroit | DHHS photo

The department created a social distancing communications campaign to the tactics deployed to help flatten the curve across the state. But DHHS decided to create a program to address minority communities in Southeast Michigan where the virus was spread at an alarming rate. 

Gordon called the department’s longtime media consulting firm, Brogan & Partners, looking for answers. He needed a strategy, an approach to reach people where they were. 

Brogan executed the campaign’s media planning and produced campaign creative material. It focused on ads on television, as well as minority-owned radio, both African-American- and Latino-oriented outlets. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and DHHS Director Robert Gordon at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

The department also leaned on GMMB, a strategic communications firm with offices in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco. The firm had provided public health communications expertise in battling COVID-19 in California. DHHS leveraged assistance from GMMB through a contract funded by nonprofit Atlanta-based CDC Foundation. The counsel came at no cost to state taxpayers, according to DHHS.

Through the end of May, the total COVID-19 campaign price is just shy of $4 million. About $1.83 million of the media budget was spent on targeting communities of color, representing 55% of the paid media budget.

“We ramped up pretty quickly,” Ellyn Davidson, Brogan & Partners CEO said. “In a crisis and a situation like this it takes the partner, the client and the team to move things along quickly. That is one of the things that has amazed me the most. You can’t produce a television campaign in two days until you have an amazing client.”

Calls and emails to Senate Appropriations Committee chair Jim Stamas (R-Midland) and House Appropriations Committee chair Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) about the campaign were not returned. 

More than half dozen television spots were created using an age, ethnic and gender diverse set of cast members. Several of the ads featured African Americans. In addition, television and radio on-air personalities like Bushman of WJLB-FM 98, the “Mojo in the Morning” team at WKQI Channel995, and Karen Drew, an anchor and reporter at WDIV-TV 4, also donned protective masks on ad spots to help promote the vital use.

Part of the Michigan Department of Human Services’ COVID-19 public service campaign in Detroit | DHHS photo

But the department also sought the advice and counsel of other firms using Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dollars to fund the effort. Applecart, a New York City-based data science firm, created a direct outreach campaign using phone calls. In addition, Mario Morrow & Associates and Milo Detroit also provided resources, according to the department. 

Mario Morrow & Associates coordinated and carried out community outreach efforts to African Americans in Detroit, which included newspaper op-eds and public speaking opportunities. Milo Detroit created social media strategies to reach people in the Motor City.

“We placed a lot of our influencers on radio and on key talk shows,” said Mario Morrow, Mario Morrow & Associates CEO. “We wanted to connect with the younger folks. People who didn’t seem to be following the recommendations such as wearing your mask and to use social distancing.”

Applecart has worked with the Michigan Republican Party and GOP officials like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Its role with the DHHS’ COVID-19 campaign was to reach Michigan residents who do not necessarily get their news and vital information from traditional sources.

“They’re not really watching the nightly news on television,” said Sasha Samotin, Applecart co-CEO. “That’s just not how they consume content. We needed to make sure that we were delivering messages to people where they were.”

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The city of Detroit’s number of COVID-19 cases and deaths peaked in April, but have declined steadily. Gordon attributes the curve flattening, in significant part, to the department’s direct marketing and public relations effort.

“We’ve never faced a crisis like this one,” said Gordon. “We’ve moved quickly to save lives, and I believe that’s what we’ve done.”

Duggan praised Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the department’s chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health, for her efforts to impact the department. She served as Detroit’s health director prior to joining DHHS last year. 

“Dr. Khaldun has done a marvelous job, in the middle of a crisis, building a reporting system that didn’t exist,” said Duggan. “Look where Michigan is now: New cases are fewer than the state of Ohio. That wasn’t true at all four or six weeks ago. She deserves enormous credit.” 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.