WASHINGTON — As communities of color are disproportionately dying from the coronavirus, Congress asked the CDC to collect national data on the race and ethnicity of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
On the day of the deadline set in law by Congress, the CDC responded with a page of links that referred back to its public website.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, “should be embarrassed by the lazy, incomplete, 2.5-page copy-and-paste job it calls a ‘report’ on the racial disparities of COVID-19 cases,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted last week.
Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, sent the report to Congress on March 15. The links that CDC forwarded include some racial and ethnic data on the coronavirus, but it is incomplete. The report includes a link to the CDC’s updating data on cases and deaths across the US, but only includes race and ethnicity information for less than half of the 1.7 million people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The report also linked to the CDC’s data on hospitalizations broken down by race and ethnicity, but that page only includes data from specific network hospitals in 14 states, totaling just about 10% of the US population.
“This wholly inadequate response tells us nothing except what we already knew: the Trump Administration would prefer to ignore the disproportionate impact this crisis is having on communities of color,” Sen. Patty Murray, the lead Democrat on a Senate Health Committee, said in a statement.
The CDC did not respond to several questions on how it obtained its data or the timeframe in which it will update the information. And while incomplete, Redfield wrote that the CDC data does suggest “a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups,” adding that “studies are underway to confirm these data.” The CDC did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests to specify what kind of studies are being conducted.
The report comes after Congress passed its most recent coronavirus stimulus package, which required the CDC to report COVID-19 race and ethnicity data to several congressional committees, as they investigate the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on black and Hispanic people.
Last month, a group of bipartisan members of Congress urged the Trump administration to gather data on high-risk communities in order to better understand the racial disparity and aid those communities in response to the pandemic.
Health experts say complete reports are key to addressing COVID-19 disparities in communities of color.
“Thus far, the fragmented data we are getting from HHS, state, and local sources paint a very fragmented, but troubling picture,” Northeastern University health policy expert Leo Beletsky told BuzzFeed News in an email. “Systematic national data are necessary to understand the full scope of the issue and to target resources where they are most needed.
Beletsky went further to suggest the administration’s slow-walk of the data is an effort to avoid criticism of its coronavirus response and conversations about longstanding health disparities among people of color.
“Ultimately, these data will force some very difficult conversations about bungled responses so far, as well as about broader questions of race and racism in America. This is why agencies are dragging their feet on making these analyses available to lawmakers and the public.”
Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who also signed onto the initial letter to the CDC asking for race and ethnicity data for COVID-19, told reporters on Wednesday that black people represent nearly 40% of all COVID-19 cases in Boston (38% according to city data), despite being 25% of the population.
“We will use every tool at our disposal to uncover why this administration waited so long to take any action and make clear the grave consequences of their inaction,” Pressley told reporters on a call. “And while oversight is critical, we must also keep up the pressure on this administration to take action now before we are robbed, unnecessarily, of even more lives.”
Sen. Tim Scott, the lone black Republican senator and the only GOP member to call on the CDC to provide race and ethnicity data of COVID-19 victims, is instead urging states to report their own data.
“In South Carolina, we regularly receive and can readily access disaggregated demographic data on both cases and fatalities,” Scott told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “Our model is effective and consistent, and I hope other states and stakeholders would follow suit in reporting these critical numbers that can only help us stop the spread in our most vulnerable communities.”
As of Wednesday, black people, who make up about 27% of South Carolina’s population, accounted for 52% of the coronavirus cases, according to state data.
The House-passed Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES) also would require the CDC to provide race and ethnicity data to Congress with money to assist states with their collection of data. But that bill has not passed the Senate, where Republicans have said the legislation is dead on arrival.
In the meantime, the CDC is still required to provide another report within 30 days of the one just released.
“We are not done pushing for answers and action here, not by a long shot,” Murray said.