AUSTIN (Texas) — Local, state, and national health officials have been tracking data around COVID-19 cases, but there are calls for a closer look at how disease is affecting people of color.
“With a pandemic like this, a lot of disparities are exacerbated,” said Paulette Blanc, an advocate at the local data and advocacy group MEASURE. “We know that even with high income and more education, you still can face poorer outcomes as a person of color, particularly a black person, within the health care system.”
In Travis County
Wednesday night, Austin Public Health started publishing demographic data on COVID-19 on its website. Of the 597 people who tested positive:
White – 57%Hispanic – 30%Black – 8%Asian – 4%Other – <1%
In a town hall hosted by the Austin Justice Coalition, Interim Austin-Travis County health authority Dr. Mark Escott said that data was “almost exactly consistent” with the demographics for Travis County.
According to the most recent U.S. Census estimates, here’s how the population is broken down in Travis County:
White – 48.8%Hispanic or Latino – 33.9%Black or African American – 8.9%Asian – 7.3%American Indian and Alaska Native – 1.2%Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander – 0.1%Two or More Races – 2.6%
As for the currently consistent data, Dr. Escott said, “We don’t expect that to stay the same.”
He explained that the disease is more likely to be severe for people with underlying health conditions.
“We know that race and ethnicity substantially impact those underlying health conditions,” Dr. Escott told the town hall.
UT Health researchers mapped out which areas of Austin will likely see more cases requiring hospitalizations and ventilators. Their research was based on government health data tracking the highest prevalence of several underlying risk-factors.
The data revealed portions of north and east Austin, where higher poverty levels are also reported, could see the most severe cases.
“It’s hard for us to fix the underlying inequities that have been in Austin for a long time,” Dr. Escott said. “But we certainly want to avoid compounding that issue.”
He said they are working with partners city-wide to ensure “everybody has access to the testing.”
“We are encouraging people of color, in particular, to not wait to get to seek treatment,” Dr. Escott said.
KXAN requested the number of testing sites in the northern and eastern portions of the city. We are still waiting to hear back.
In the town hall, Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said they are working closely with CommUnityCare, as a Federally Qualified Health Center who provides primary care services in under-served areas.
“There was a request for more testing in the eastern crescent,” Hayden said. “We understand that they did have to close some of their sites out in the county area, and that was due to the need for their ability to conserve PPE and ensure they had enough staffing, but we are going to work with them on some additional testing sites in the eastern crescent.”
Hayden also said they are working to get data on race/ethnicity for cases requiring hospitalization.
The Texas Department of State Health Services is tracking COVID-19 data based on certain demographics, as well. According to its count, of the total number of confirmed cases:
White – 39.9%Hispanic – 24.7%Black – 10.3%Asian – 4.9%Other – 0.8%Unknown – 19.3%
KXAN asked the state why nearly a fifth of all cases are listed with an “unknown” race or ethnicity.
A spokesperson for DSHS explained that because Texas has a decentralized public health system, local and regional health departments conduct the “contact investigation” of cases and then submit case reports to the state.
“If the race and ethnicity fields are not completed on the case report, the cases are classified as unknown. Sometimes the patient prefers not to answer the questions about race and ethnicity,” the spokesperson said.
She also said that because this process takes time, “DSHS only has data for a small portion of the COVID-19 cases in Texas.”
Right now, DSHS has received case report forms for just under 2,000 of the 10,230 cases that have been reported by local jurisdictions.
This week, President Donald Trump said the impact on African Americans was a “real problem” that was showing up “strongly” in the data. So far, the CDC has not publicly released data on race/ethnicity for COVID-19.
A new report found 70 percent of people in Chicago who died from COVID-19 were black, in spite of the city’s population being 30% black.
There are now calls for more data to be released at the national level on how this disease is affecting people of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.