Collecting and reporting ethnicity stats on COVID-19 matters for the health of everyone
The Equitable Data Collection and Disclosure on COVID-19 Act, which requires the federal government to include race and ethnicity among demographic data collected and released about COVID-19 is not partisan. It is not biased. And it is not relevant only to the slice of American citizenry with brown and black skin who are dying disproportionately in this country from the virus.
It matters to the health and welfare of everyone.
Importantly — as we look to Michigan, where 14 percent of the population is black yet 33 percent of those with COVID-19 are black; to Louisiana, where 32 percent of the population is black yet 70 of the dead are black; to the city of Boston, where 25 percent of the population is black yet 40 percent of those infected are black — we see a horrifying but compelling pattern that, if investigated, could help us eventually stop the spread of the virus.
Here’s why: While COVID-19 does not see color, it does see — and viciously attacks — people with underlying health conditions: lung, heart, and kidney disease, as well as cancer, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Minority and underserved communities suffer and die in far higher numbers from these diseases. They always have. While the COVID-19 data on minorities are alarming, they are not shocking.
But what we already know offers us a way forward. Unlike with other segments of the population, we can more easily predict the likelihood of COVID-19 hotspots in these communities — and more effectively deploy rapid testing and contact tracing in order to quickly gain data-driven insights that can turn the tide in these neighborhoods and be applied to neighborhoods nationwide.
In other words, a mandate to post daily updates on the CDC website showing the data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, sex, age, socioeconomic status, disability status, county, and other demographic information is not meant to divide us for the benefit of a few. It is meant to inform us for the benefit of all.
Meharry is proud to have worked with Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), chair of The Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, to help shape the legislation. We urge bipartisan support for its passage. Once it has passed, we are eager to contribute to data collection and analysis in the coming weeks, and to work with Congress on additional areas of need, including testing, treatment and drug development.
I say this as an infectious disease expert who is on the front lines of COVID-19 today, who was on the front lines of HIV 40 years ago — and who is still on the front lines of HIV because that war continues to rage in poor black communities.
I say this as the President and CEO of Meharry Medical College, one of America’s four Historically Black Colleges and Universities academic health science centers, whose entire histories are a track record of care for the disenfranchised amid dismissal from the white medical establishment.
And finally, I say this as a man who loves his country, cares for all its people, and wants to be armed for the fight to save them. The Equitable Data Collection and Disclosure on COVID-19 Act is such a weapon.
Scientific investigation rooted in methodically collected data is our strongest ally right now. We need to go where the science leads us — and today it is leading us to the hotspots of minority America. These communities, so battered by so many disadvantages, require our full attention — not only because the country must help them, but because they can help the country.
Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, Ph.D, M.D., is an infectious disease scientist and president and CEO of Meharry Medical College, a historically black college located in Nashville, Tenn.