Maryland’s health department has not published data on the racial breakdown of coronavirus cases, despite escalating pressure from black lawmakers.
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus say such information is vital to spot disparities that could arise in testing, treatment and, ultimately, outcomes.
“While it is clear COVID-19 does not discriminate among its victims, racial health disparities, access to care, diagnosis and treatment have long been a concern of minority communities,” Democratic Sen. Charles Sydnor wrote Wednesday in a letter to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
The Baltimore County legislator is one of several members of the General Assembly who are pushing the state to publish data on the race of patients infected by the new coronavirus, alongside the already public breakdowns by age, gender and county.
Del. Darryl Barnes, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the group expects to file a formal request by the end of the week for a racial breakdown of cases.
“I understand there’s a lot going on in trying to keep everyone safe and at home,” Barnes said. “But this data is critically important.”
Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said the state is seeking information about the races of patients from testing sites.
“We are working through the process of reporting out this information, and will be sure to keep the legislators updated on their request," he said in a statement. "What we can be sure of is that no one is immune, and everyone needs to take the spread of this virus seriously.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has not made data available by race, although high-profile Democratic lawmakers are pushing for that. In a letter Monday to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the national lawmakers wrote that the dearth of information “will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in vulnerable communities."
A handful of other states and counties began publishing such data over the last week. African American leaders and doctors across the country are cautioning that their communities could be especially hard hit.
U.S. cities with large black and brown populations, such as Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans are hot spots of the outbreak.
Data from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina — where Charlotte is located — showed that while black residents make up about a third of the population, they account for roughly 44% of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“Certainly, African Americans are disproportionately impacted, and I’d like to understand some of the ‘whys’ behind that,” Mecklenburg County Commissioner Mark Jerrell told The Charlotte Observer. “I’m very concerned about that — it’s alarming, and it’s something we have to get under control immediately.”
In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, all eight people who had died from COVID-19, as of last week, were black.
Some state health departments are publishing data, albeit incomplete, on race.
As of March 27 in Illinois, the health department was reporting 39% of cases involved white residents, while 28% of COVID-19 patients were black. The state’s population is 14.6% black. In one-fifth of Illinois cases, race was unknown.
In Michigan, a state where black residents make up roughly 14% of the population, black people accounted for more than one-third of all cases and 40% of deaths. The race of 30% of Michigan patients was unknown.
Virginia’s health department says the race of 61% of cases is unknown. Still, where the race is known, about a quarter are black and more than half are white.
Maryland Del. Nick Mosby, a Baltimore Democrat, started publicly calling over the weekend for the state to begin tracking cases by race. Other lawmakers quickly joined in.
“It is pertinent we start this discussion now, in the midst of a national crisis, to ensure proper attention is placed on addressing any health inequities in real time,” Mosby wrote Thursday in a letter to Maryland Health Secretary Robert Neall. “With more complete and comprehensive data, our state and local authorities are better positioned to support communities with an elevated risk.”
Baltimore’s population is more than 60% black, compared to roughly 30% of Maryland’s population.
Black people in America suffer higher rates of asthma and diabetes — the kinds of underlying health conditions that could put patients at a greater risk of COVID-19 complications.
Doctors also have expressed fear that health care providers’ implicit racial bias could play into their decision about who receives a coronavirus test, which are in short supply.
“We don’t have clarity about how people are gaining access to a test,” Del. Stephanie Smith said. “We’re in a health care culture that, despite its noble ideals, has challenges delivering the same quality of care to all patients.”
Many people of color have deep-rooted fears about the way they will be treated by hospitals. Without a full data picture, advocates warn, it becomes harder to tailor public health messaging to specific at-risk communities. Community organizers already say they have to combat a myth that black people can’t contract the virus.
Smith, a Baltimore Democrat, said some people living in the city’s poorest, most violent neighborhoods have become used to a heightened level of stress and trauma, to the point that this pandemic may not register in the same way it does within communities used to more stability.
Race-specific data would “give us another communication lever,” Smith said. “The more specific and more personal you can make your targeting, the more effective you are."
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