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Coronavirus deaths should be tracked by race | COMMENTARY

Lawmakers across the country are pushing for health officials to begin tracking coronavirus cases and deaths by race.
Lawmakers across the country are pushing for health officials to begin tracking coronavirus cases and deaths by race. (Konstantin Postumitenko/Dreamstime/TNS)

Health disparities by race in this country are well documented. African American mothers are more likely to die in child birth, or shortly after, than white moms. Rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity are also higher in racial minorities, who are also more likely to die from these diseases. And studies have shown many of these inequalities exist even when you take income out of the equation.

Yet, as the country battles its biggest health crisis in decades, with no end in site, our federal and state health officials have not been tracking deaths from COVID-19 by race. This despite the fact that all the underlying health conditions people of color are more likely to suffer from will increase their chances of death from COVID-19.

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African American lawmakers across the country, including state Del. Nick Mosby of Baltimore and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus, are calling for this vital demographic information to be included in data collection and released to the public — and rightfully so. The state is already tracking deaths and cases by age, gender and geographic location, why would they not make the data available by race as well? Health officials will not get a clear and detailed picture of the progression of the disease if they don’t.

American cities with large African American populations — including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and New Orleans — are quickly becoming hot spots for the virus, and the handful of areas that have begun collecting race data show black residents are disproportionately affected. Perhaps testing needs to be targeted in such communities.

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Last Thursday, for example, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released COVID-19 data on its residents that included breakdowns by age, sex, race and ethnicity. It showed black and African Americans made up 35% of their confirmed COVID-19 cases, even though they make up only 12% of the population. Black people so far accounted for 40% of Michigan’s coronavirus deaths. In Chicago, about 68% of coronavirus deaths have involved African Americans, who make up only about 30% of the total population. Now they must dig into the reasons why there’s such a disparity.

Thus far, Maryland has no idea if its cases are similarly distributed. Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday Maryland would finally start providing this data and is directing the state health lab to report the information and “be as proactive as anyone in the nation” to push private labs to do the same. We are glad about this, but this vital statistic never should have been left out in the first place.

At the federal level, several lawmakers — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey; and Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois — sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, calling for the collection of comprehensive demographic data on people who are tested or treated for the virus.

“Decades of structural racism have prevented so many Black and Brown families from accessing quality health care, affordable housing and financial security, and the coronavirus crisis is blowing these disparities wide open,” Senator Warren said in a statement. “We need the government to step up in a big way to ensure that communities of color have equal access to free testing and treatment.”

Studies have shown that bias, whether explicit or implicit, can sometimes result in racial minorities not getting the best care. For instance, it has been found that doctors don’t always believe African Americans pain levels so will give them inadequate doses of medication.

Race data can show patterns of treatment for coronavirus. Are people of color getting tested, and are they being hospitalized? Or are they being turned away by doctors and not diagnosed until the symptoms are so bad there is little chance of survival? We have to collect the data to know this.

Already, there have been stories about COVID-19 victims who died after doctors didn’t test them early enough, including an African American teacher in New York who was turned away more than once before rushed to the hospital barely able to breathe. The doctors could have been perfectly justified; we don’t know, which is among the many reasons it’s important to look for patterns of potential racial bias.

Virginia is recording race, but the system is inconsistent. A chart provided by the Virginia Department of Health showed that the information was missing for most of the cases.

That is unacceptable. Collecting complete demographic data must be prioritized as the spread of the disease intensifies if we are to correct any disparities now, in real time. We don’t want to discover a year from now that something more could have been done to save lives. Having this information in retrospect will be too late.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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