Reports in some areas of the country show the novel coronavirus is having a disproportionate effect on African Americans. But data in Virginia, like many other places, is so incomplete that it’s difficult to know if that’s happening here.
The Virginia Department of Health posts updates on its website that include cases by race. But in 54% of the 3,645 positive cases to date, race is listed as “not reported” and an additional 6% of cases are listed as “other.”
On top of that, the department reports cases by locality, but no further data is available to the public in Virginia about which communities or ZIP codes of a county or city are being hit harder than others.
Gov. Ralph Northam addressed the issue in a news conference Wednesday and said Virginia needs to measure cases by race because of racial inequities in access to health care, education and economic opportunity.
He and state Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said the incomplete data comes from private medical providers not reporting the data to labs that do the tests, and thus the state doesn’t get complete data.
“It is my understanding that private testing labs and some other private partners are not currently reporting this data,” Northam said. “We’re exploring ways to make sure that they do.”
The Department of Health will send letters to private medical partners encouraging them to report data by race.
Of the state’s positive cases in which race was recorded as white, black or other, there were 506 cases involving blacks as of Wednesday, or 30.4%. U.S. Census Bureau data lists blacks as 19.9% of Virginia’s population. Whites made up 917 of those cases, or 55%.
The state only has race data on half of the 75 known COVID-19 deaths in Virginia, Oliver said. Of the half that are recorded by race, 14, or 18.7%, were African American, he said, and three, or 4%, were Latino. He said the state should eventually get the full racial breakdown of deaths because race will be collected on death certificates.
Because of a lack of widespread testing, long wait times for results and lags in reporting, Virginia is likely to have significantly more COVID-19 infections than the confirmed cases that the Department of Health reports.
Dr. Cameron Webb, the director of health policy and equity for the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences, said the lack of data is “very troubling. National trends showing a disproportionate racial impact are not shocking to experts because of a longstanding health deficit for blacks in America,” he said.
He noted that Virginia’s data for positive coronavirus tests lacked an age in just one case, showing that medical providers know age is important to track in a pandemic.
“The fact that we’ve got one case where we didn’t report the age, 48 cases where we didn’t report the sex, but we have nearly 2,000 where we didn’t report the race — what that signals to me loud and clear among these 3,645 cases is that people did not appreciate the significance of having that race data reported,” he said.
“For whatever reason, people have chosen to believe that the race of the patient is not an important factor. And now, that has to stop based on what we’re seeing all over the country.”
Robert Barnette, president of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, said he would like to map which communities have the most cases to determine if there’s a disproportionate racial impact.
“I would like to have that data as well and we are trying to get that data. We are asking folks at the governor’s office: Why isn’t there data on race with regard to coronavirus?” he said Monday.
State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, has been asking the governor’s office if more detailed data is available on race and location of cases.
“There’s data that’s out there that can be used to analyze this and from my perspective the more people’s brains we have looking at this, crowdsourcing it, the better chance we have of coming to some conclusions,” he said. “A lot of our lower-wage workers and our minority workers can’t telework … and it’s important to see this data and what effect it’s having on populations” to adjust the policy response.
National reports show a disproportionate impact by race in areas like Detroit and Milwaukee. ProPublica reported Friday that 81 percent of the 27 deaths in Milwaukee County were African Americans, while the countywide population was just 26% African American.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday that more than 70 percent of people in Louisiana who had died from COVID-19 were African Americans.
But many areas of the country are not reporting data by race.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams addressed the racial disparity Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.”
“When you look at being black in America, No. 1, people unfortunately are more likely to be of low socioeconomic status, which makes it harder to social distance. No. 2, we know that blacks are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, lung disease,” he said. “I and many black Americans are at higher risk for COVID. It’s why we need everyone to do their part to slow the spread.”
Virginia Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said he too wants more data broken down by race in Virginia. “We have more questions than we have answers,” he said.
And he said the Black Caucus has questions about the lack of available tests.
“That also impacts individuals that may not readily have those resources available in their communities,” he said.