Skip to Main

April 2, 2020

Washington Post: Data on the race of coronavirus victims is inconsistent. Rep. Ayanna Pressley wants to change that.

It has been said that when white Americans catch a cold, black Americans get the flu. And several lawmakers are concerned that there isn’t enough data showing what they believe to be true: that people of color and those from low-income communities could be disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus pandemic.

So a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are calling on the federal government to change how they are collecting data. In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the lawmakers wrote:

It is critical that the federal government make a concerted effort to account for existing racial disparities in health care access and how persistent inequities may exacerbate these disparities in the weeks and months to come as our nation responds to this global health pandemic. We urge HHS to work with states, localities, and private labs to better collect data on health disparities as we continue to respond to this pandemic.

A Pew survey published last week reported that while most Americans view the coronavirus as at least a minor threat to their health, people of color view the virus as a greater threat. Nearly half — 46 percent — of African Americans see it as a major threat to their health, as do 39 percent of Latinos. Only about one in five white adults see the coronavirus as a major threat to their health.

On a press call Wednesday, Pressley shared her concern that many illnesses that disproportionately afflict among people of color — such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension — can put their lives at greater risk. And there is interest among her and other lawmakers to see if these individuals are getting the testing and treatment they need to have a much healthier outcome.

Thousands of undocumented immigrants, low-income seniors and inmates are at risk of not having their medical needs met due to under-resourced hospitals and community health centers, Pressley said.

“This virus does not discriminate and neither should our resources,” she said. “The hurt is being felt by everyone.”

While data about the age and gender of patients is being gathered, there isn’t any consistent information about race and ethnicity across the states. This could make it difficult for the government and medical providers to pass policies and laws that narrow the gap between well-funded, predominantly white communities and under-resourced communities of color.

Past studies have shown that people of color and those from low-income communities are disproportionately harmed during epidemics. The Post’s Vanessa Williams wrote about how the economy’s effect on Latinos and black Americans could impact the type of medical care they receive. People of color are less likely to be insured when compared to white Americans and are also much more likely to be low-income workers who are laid off as businesses scale back or close their doors.

And Uché Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician who founded Advancing Health Equity, a company that trains health organizations to provide equitable care to patients, said the urgent care center where she works in Brooklyn is mostly seeing black patients with health complications that are so serious that she has to send them to the hospital.

As hospitals with limited resources are making decisions about which patients to treat and when, Blackstock said it’s important to know how these decisions are being made and who is most impacted.

“I feel like in a normal situation, our patients would already have to deal with provider bias,” she told The Fix. “And when they interface with the health-care system now when we are in a situation where we have limited resources, to think about how providers are making their decisions about who gets care and how is incredibly concerning.”

Inequality has been a major theme of the 2020 election campaign, with candidates on both sides of the aisle discussing their desire to improve the American experience for people of color and those from low-income communities. The emphasis that government leaders place on monitoring the health of some of the country’s most marginalized during this pandemic could show Americans that there are efforts to put actions behind words.