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Local News

Report shows several northern Michigan counties with high poverty and COVID death rates

Credit: iStock

by Laina G. Stebbins, Michigan Advance
April 6, 2022

Many of America’s poorest counties have experienced disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19 deaths, including several in northern Michigan, according to a new report from the Poor People’s Campaign.

The report released Monday was from the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival; Repairers of the Breach; the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice; the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Howard University. It collected data from more than 3,200 counties to connect COVID-19 death data to other characteristics like race, income, health insurance status and more.

Michigan’s Iron County in the U.P. ranks 33rd out of the country’s top 300 counties with high poverty and COVID-19 death rates, followed by Baraga, Alcona, Oscoda and Ontonagon counties.

The U.P. was initially home to fewer COVID cases than the rest of the state during the first wave in winter 2020, and Ontonagon County was the last in Michigan to record COVID-19 cases. The virus was finally detected in all 83 of the state’s counties when the western U.P. county reported its first case in July 2020.  Here’s the breakdown of Michigan counties in the report:

33rd: Iron County

  • 81 cumulative deaths
  • Death rate of 732 per 100,000 people
  • Median income of $41,599
  • 36.62% of people living below the 200% poverty line

71st: Baraga County

  • 53 cumulative deaths
  • Death rate of 646 per 100,000
  • Median income of $46,065
  • 37.75% of people living below the poverty line

73rd: Alcona County

  • 67 cumulative deaths
  • Death rate of 644 per 100,000
  • Median income of $40,484
  • 39.17% of people living below the poverty line

75th: Oscoda County

  • 53 cumulative deaths
  • Death rate of 646 per 100,000
  • Median income of $42,335
  • 38.67% of people living below the poverty line

93rd: Ontonagon County

  • 35 cumulative deaths
  • Death rate of 612 per 100,000
  • Median income of $41,546
  • 39.09% of people living below the poverty line

The intersectional analysis found that people residing in poorer counties died at nearly twice the rate of those in richer counties over the course of the pandemic.

“The findings of this report reveal neglect, and sometimes intentional decisions, to not focus on the poor,” said the Rev. William Barber II, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

“It is further evidence why we have called for the President [Joe Biden] to meet, at the White House, with a diverse delegation of poor and low-wealth people, religious leaders. … We are not here to celebrate this report, but to mourn the extent of the loss and to realize how much of has been unnecessary,” Barber said.

Nationally, the five counties with the lowest average income level and highest COVID-19 death rates are Galax, Va.; Hancock, Ga.; Motley, Texas; Robertson, Ky.; and Foard, Texas, in terms of highest poverty rates and highest death rates from COVID-19.

Most of the deadliest waves of COVID-19 so far — which a Pew study recently identified —  saw poorer counties experiencing much higher death rates.

The second wave (roughly mid-July through September 2020) was mostly experienced by poorer counties, the report contends; the third wave (winter 2020-21) saw death rates in counties with the lowest median income at four and a half times higher than the highest; the fourth wave (fall 2021 during the delta variant surge) recorded death rates at five times higher in those low-income counties; and the fifth wave (winter 2022 during the omicron variant surge) saw a death rate nearly three times higher than counties with lowest median incomes compared to the highest.

The only exception to the rule has so far been the initial phase of the pandemic, which encompassed roughly the first 125,000 deaths from March to June 2020.

In the more than 300 counties with the highest death rates, the poverty rate is on average 45% — one and a half times higher than counties with lower death rates, with an average of $23,000 less in median income.

These counties, which account for about 2% of the U.S. population, are 56% white.

For the poorest tenth-percentile of counties, more than half of the 31 million-person population lives under 200% of the poverty line. They are made up of disproportionately people of color — nearly 27% of all Indigenous people in the country, 15% of all Black people, 13% of all Hispanic people, 9% of all white people and 2% of all Asian people.

More than twice as many Black people reside in these counties as compared to higher income counties.

The intersectional analysis was able to rule out vaccination status as an explanation for the death rate variations among income groups.

“In almost every income group, county vaccine coverage ranges from nearly full coverage (85%+) to almost no coverage (under 5%),” the report reads. Although vaccination rates are generally higher for highest income counties than middle- and low-income counties, “these differences do not explain the whole variation in death rates in the later waves of the pandemic,” the report continues.

The Poor People’s pandemic report argues that there have been blind spots in policy and decision-making throughout COVID-19 due to the lack of acknowledgement about the intersection of poverty with race, gender, ability, insured status and occupation.

By providing a more complete intersectional analysis of the pandemic’s structural drivers and its economic impacts, the groups hope the information will “develop our understanding of these intersections and summon the political will to implement bold policy solutions to fully address them.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

Laina G. Stebbins is a contributor for Michigan Advance, where this story first appeared.