Jessica Malaty Rivera has an MS in Emerging Infectious Diseases and is the Science Communication Lead at The COVID Tracking Project.
Black people make up thirteen percent of the population of the United States, but twenty-four percent of US COVID-19 deaths where public health authorities have reported race. We know this because since April 12th, The COVID Racial Data Tracker has been compiling data about the race and ethnicity of people who have tested positive or died of COVID-19. To understand how this public health crisis is affecting communities of color, we need information. But the data we compile from US states and territories remains disastrously incomplete. Many states and territories don’t publish sufficient demographic data to identify communities where, for example, existing health inequities on the basis of race are worsened during the pandemic by lack of access to testing.
States and territories are still not reporting racial and ethnic information for nearly fifty percent of cases, but it is clear from the available data that COVID-19 outcomes have been much worse for Black people nationally and in many states where we have enough data to draw initial conclusions.
In Michigan and Missouri, both of which report racial data for 96% of all COVID-19 deaths, Black people are dying of COVID-19 at a rate more than three times higher than their share of the population.
In Wisconsin, which reports racial data for 98% of COVID-19 deaths, Black people are dying of COVID-19 at a rate five times higher than their share of the population.
In Kansas, which reports racial data for 97% of COVID-19 deaths, Black people are dying of COVID-19 at a rate five times higher than their population share.
In Minnesota, where George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th sparked the protests now taking place across the United States, Black people make up 6% of the population, but account for 29% of all known COVID-19 cases.
To build a more accurate picture of the unequal impacts of COVID-19, the public needs consistent and reliable data from every state, including demographic data for total tests performed, known cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. This is crucial both for the immediate response and for future analysis to understand how decades of systemic racism has made some communities so much more vulnerable in this pandemic. This data is also necessary for the development of the antiracist public health policies and programs that are clearly so badly needed both now and in the future.
The state of the data
When we launched this project, we collected data from the 25 states that reported race or ethnicity for COVID-19 cases and the 21 states that reported the same information for COVID-19 related deaths. On April 15, we published this information, as the first iteration of the COVID Racial Data Tracker. From the beginning of the project we’ve asked all 56 states and territories—50 states, 5 territories, and the District of Columbia—to report complete race and ethnicity data for our tracker. We compile updates to the data twice a week and present it alongside information on each location’s population from the Census Bureau’s 2018 ACS 5-Year estimates.
To date, 48 states and territories provide race and ethnicity data for reported COVID-19 cases, and 43 are providing it for COVID-19 related deaths. Unfortunately, many states and territories have failed to report and update this data in a consistent way, many list large percentages of cases and deaths as “unknown” in their racial and ethnic demographics, and some fail to report this data at all.
Another problem is that different locations use different categories for race and ethnicity. This makes it difficult or impossible to compare this data across states—or form a complete national picture to evaluate different state or territorial responses or policies. Currently, of the states reporting cases and deaths by racial category, only “White” and “Black or African American” are consistently included. This leaves out many non-Black people of color and ignores the many ways race and ethnicity interact. As a result, much of the data that does make it to the public misrepresents the experience of some communities—or fails to represent them at all.
Some of the changes states and territories need to make to produce more complete and useful demographic data are relatively simple, like publishing data currently being gathered but kept hidden from public view and being transparent about what information is missing. Other changes will be more challenging, but we urge state governments and public health to work together with healthcare and lab systems to continuously improve these vital public records.
What needs to change
Public health researchers, policymakers, journalists, and members of the public cannot truly understand what is happening nationally or locally without consistent updates from all 56 states and territories. Having compiled this data for nearly two months, we have arrived at a set of requests for the absolute minimum data on race and ethnicity required to power an immediate response and ongoing analysis. We ask that each state and territory:
Report race and ethnicity data for both COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 related deaths.
Clearly state information how many of their cases and fatalities are missing race and ethnicity data.
Work with the various reporting entities to reduce or eliminate cases and deaths with race and ethnicity listed as “unknown.”
Use the US Census standard racial and ethnic categories to enable comparison across states and the development of national statistics. (Census categories are incomplete and highly imperfect, but we advocate for their adoption to make demographic data consistent and comparable between places and with Census-based population data.)
Without complete and consistent demographic data, we will not know the true scale of this pandemic and its disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous communities. To get good data, concerned members of the public must hold officials accountable for collecting and publishing complete race and ethnicity data.
How you can help
See what your state or territory reports and, if it's insufficient, contact your governor's office and ask them to follow the data reporting practices we’ve outlined here. You can also join our email list for weekly updates and further ways to help us push for more and better data about COVID-19 in the United States.