Gilchrist wants GOP lawmakers to show ‘leadership’ on fighting COVID-19, getting vaccinated

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist during a COVID-19 vaccination site press announcement at Ford Field in Detroit on March 18 | Ken Coleman photo

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said last week it is “absolutely ridiculous” that GOP lawmakers have fought a nationally recognized tool designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in communities at higher risk for the deadly virus.

“The Social Vulnerability Index takes into account a number of factors, like about 20 factors,” said Gilchrist at a Friday Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce virtual task force meeting. “And actually, what we see, if you really look at it, the Social Vulnerability Index does not just benefit people of color.”  

The Social Vulnerability Index is used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the nation’s federal health protection agency. It uses U.S. Census factors to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during or after disasters. 

In recent weeks, there has been an increase in pandemic spread in Michigan’s outstate communities, many of which are largely white and have significant low-income populations. All regions of the state have experienced an increase of cases in March, officials said. 

Last week, a mass regional COVID vaccination site with the capacity to administer 6,000 doses each day opened at Ford Field in Detroit. The Biden administration in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) selected Southeast Michigan for the site using SVI data. 

The stadium also was picked as it’s a large site that is known to metro Detroit residents, a White House statement noted. In addition, the site is Americans with Disabilities Act/Architectural Barriers Act accessible, has the ability to accommodate thousands of people at the same time, has convenient access to parking and public transportation, and has existing security and crowd control infrastructure.

During the first three days of vaccination at Ford Field last week, 13,100 people received a vaccine dose. Of that number, 72.3% were white; 13.8 were Black; 4.9% were Asian; 4.7% were Latinx; 3.2% were other; and 1% were Native American or Alaskan Native, which is similar to Michigan’s demographics.  

However, the SVI has been targeted by several Republican lawmakers, who claim it is unfair to their constituents.

The GOP-led Michigan Senate voted along party lines in February to adopt a measure in a COVID relief bill to prohibit the state government from using race and socio-economic factors while distributing COVID-19 vaccines. That language did not make it in the final bill, but sparked a fierce debate. 

Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) argued during the debate that distributing vaccines with the SVI in mind is “inequitable,” “biased” and based on “social justice” rather than science. A media inquiry to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) was not returned.

Michigan health officials documented the first two coronavirus cases on March 10, 2020. The deadly pandemic has gripped Michigan and the rest of the nation for more than 12 months.  

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As of Monday, the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan had risen to a total of 660,771, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. There are 16,034 people who have died from the virus. Since Saturday, there have been more than 8,000 new cases and eight deaths.

Coronavirus has torn through the Legislature over the past year, with lawmakers from both parties and in every part of the state becoming ill. Among those who disclosed they had COVID are Shirkey, Barrett, state Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton), state Rep. Joe Tate (D-Detroit), state Rep. John Chirkun (D-Roseville) and state Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.). 

State Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) died of a suspected COVID infection a year ago.

Gilchrist, whose role in Michigan government includes typically presiding over the state Senate, is African American and has lost 27 people in his life to the COVID-19 virus.

Gilchrist said Michigan has been a national leader in addressing the virus’ impact on the people of color. He also said that the percentage of Blacks in Michigan who have died from the virus has reduced significantly since last spring. In May of 2020, Blacks composed 40% of COVID-19 deaths, despite making up only 14% of the state’s overall population. Blacks are fewer than 6% of COVID-19 deaths over the last five months, Gilchrist said.

Gov. signs order creating coronavirus task force on racial disparities 

In April, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, which Gilchrist chairs. He also said that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has been a leader in the country on the issue. That helped the state land the regional vaccination site at Ford Field, he said.  

“I’d like to see, frankly, some leadership from the Michigan Legislature, to demonstrate and to show that they are getting the vaccine,” said Gilchrist.

As of Monday, more than 4.1 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Michigan, with 32.5% of residents having received at least one dose. The state said that it has surpassed its goal of administering 50,000 shots per day for 34 straight days.

“With every vaccine administered, we get one step closer to eliminating this deadly virus once and for all,” Gilchrist said. “… We can all be part of the solution that saves lives and helps us get back to normal.”

All Michiganders 16+ are eligible for COVID shots starting April 5

COVID vaccines are open to all Michiganders 50 and up and those 16 and up with certain health conditions. All Michiganders age 16 and up will become eligible on April 5. 

On Monday, Whitmer said in an interview with Crain’s Detroit that providers should not turn away anyone under 50 who seeks a shot as part of the state’s effort to have more than 70% of the population over 16 vaccinated.

“We are encouraging providers of the vaccine to fill every slot even if they don’t have someone in the priority groups right now,” Whitmer said. “If it is someone 16 and up and they’ve got a slot that’s open, we’re encouraging them to fill them.”

Whitmer and Gilchrist said in a statement that they will both receive the vaccine when they’re eligible in the next phase.

Gilchrist noted that there is data that Republican men, in particular, are wary of the vaccine. Almost half of Michigan Republicans, 47%, don’t plan to get COVID-19 vaccine, according to a recent Detroit Free Press poll.  

“We need to deal with the very real politicization of the question of vaccinations,” Gilchrist said. “National survey data has made it abundantly clear that one of the groups of people who we need to worry about the most are Republican men, white Republican men.”

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.