GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In early 2020, as Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and other state leaders tried to figure out the best way to fight COVID-19, they discovered a chilling reality.

The virus was killing Black people in the state at a rate disproportionately high to their percentage of the population. Gilchrist, the first Black man to hold the office of lieutenant governor, saw it personally.

“I’ve said goodbye to 27 people from COVID-19 in my life and that’s true for communities of color and people of communities of color all across the state,” Gilchrist told News 8 recently.

“Thanks to the leadership of Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, our chief medical executive, we were one of the first states that even collected information about demographic data when it came to COVID-19 infections and deaths that included race and ethnicity,” he continued.

The higher death and mortality rates from COVID-19 in communities of color led to a deeper dive into the causes. The Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities was formed, with Gilchrist heading it up.

Gilchrist and state officials said efforts to reach and support communities of color ultimately eliminated the racial disparity. In December, the task force released a preliminary report on its actions up to that point and how its methods could be used to ensure an equitable rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Gilchrist has been at the heart of many firsts — he is the first Black lieutenant governor of Michigan, the first to sign a bill into law and the list goes on.

“I think representation matters,” he said of the important of his role at a pivotal time in Michigan’s history. “I’ve always believed that and our administration is frankly the most diverse administration in the history of the state of Michigan. I, being the first Black person in this position, am bringing unique life experiences to these questions and concerns.”

The disparate impact of the pandemic, Gilchrist said, is a prime example:

“I’ve lost a lot of people personally and a lot of Black folks have lost a lot of people personally,” he said, “so having that experience represented at the table of decision-making is really important to putting the context around the data and information we need to make choices that are going to be responsive to the  people who are most vulnerable.”

“I have always been hopeful that we will continue to bend the arch of history towards justice and Black History Month is a moment where we can reflect and be inspired to pull it even harder,” Gilchrist said.