Massachusetts on Wednesday began providing data on the race and ethnicity of those who test positive or die from the coronavirus, but, as health officials warned, the data is incomplete.
Just a third, or 33%, of the nearly 17,000 reported coronavirus cases include information about the person's race or ethnicity. Data on deaths is even worse — only 133 of the 433 total deaths reported on Wednesday had a race or ethnicity listed.
The limited data released show a less stark racial disparity than in cities like Chicago and states like Louisiana, where minority communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus. But the volume of missing data makes reliable analysis almost impossible.
"I think if the data are correct and stay correct in Massachusetts, I think that would reflect the fact that Massachusetts is doing better than other states," said Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health.
He stressed, though, that there needs to be more data.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders earlier Wednesday warned the public that the data would be incomplete. She said not all labs or hospitals conducting testing ask about race, and some computer systems don't have a place to enter it.
"Obtaining racial and ethnic data on cases of COVID-19 is crucial for examining where and on whom the burden of illness and death is falling," she said. "It's important. It's actually essential for the commonwealth's response to the pandemic and important information for all of us to understand."
She said the state is issuing an order requiring data on race and ethnicity be completed "so that we can begin publicly reporting on these measures as we do on virtually every other public health condition."
The call for state health officials to release racial data had gotten louder, as more cities and states saw minority communities testing positive for and dying from the coronavirus at higher rates.
In Massachusetts, for the 5,543 cases that did have a race or ethnicity listed, half were classified as white non-Hispanic. That was followed by Hispanic (21%), black/African American (16%), Asian (4%) and "other" (9%).
DPH said if there is no race or ethnicity listed, they classify it as missing. Unknown means the person filling out the case report didn't know the race or ethnicity of the patient, the patient refused to provide it, or the reporting system used doesn't capture the information.
The "other" category, according to DPH, indicates multiple races, or that the reporting system doesn't capture the information.
For those 133 coronavirus deaths with racial and ethnic data listed, deaths were much higher for white patients — 74%, followed by Hispanic (11%), black/African American (5%), Asian (5%) and "other" (6%).
Based on what data is available, the death rates closely mirror to Massachusetts' overall racial makeup. Massachusetts on the whole is 71% white non-Hispanic, 12% Hispanic, 9% black/African American and 7% Asian. About 3% of the state falls outside of those races and ethnicities.
A slightly disproportionate number of Hispanic and black patients were diagnosed with the coronavirus (21% and 16%) than their population in the state (12% and 9%)
Other cities, like Chicago, have seen a much starker disparity. There, black residents make up about 29% of the population, but 72% of those who have died from COVID-19. More than half of those testing positive are black. In Louisiana, more than 70% of those who died are black, while black residents make up just a third of the population.
Galea said the patterns in other states likely reflect a general underinvestment in minority health for a long time.
"We're not seeing that in Massachusetts yet," Galea said. "That is heartening. I think it's worth watching and it's worth making sure that we are providing as many services as possible for all residents of the commonwealth, being aware of the fact that vulnerable groups are at higher risk of infection and potentially complications from COVID."
The city of Boston has been releasing data on reported coronavirus cases by zip code. The city's mapping shows neighborhoods that are more predominantly black and Hispanic — Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park and East Boston — are seeing a higher rate of coronavirus cases than the rest of the city.
Boston's data, however, is also incomplete. Like the state data, only about 50% of cases has associated race or ethnicity information, the city's health and human services head said this week.
Michael Curry, former president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, and a member of the national NAACP board of directors, told Radio Boston this week — before the DPH data came out — that racial breakdowns are needed to make decisions about treating and responding to the coronavirus.
"We need the data so that we can course-correct, so we can figure out if there's places that need a testing site," he said. "Too many black families are being told when they call in, [saying], "I'm sick," ... and [the providers] say, "Just stay home, stay sick. We'll presume you have COVID-19. You don't need a test," but they're not getting the advice about how to isolate at home and do those things."
At the federal level, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and other lawmakers are pushing for a requirement in the next coronavirus relief package that health officials collect and distribute race-specific data.
With reporting from WBUR's Fausto Menard.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of black patients who had died from coronavirus, compared to their overall population in the state. Of the deaths we have racial data for, 5% were classified as black/African American. Massachusetts is 9% African American.
This article was originally published on April 08, 2020.