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Many States Are Reporting Race Data For Only Some COVID-19 Cases And Deaths

Last week, we published an analysis finding that several states have yet to break down their COVID-19 data by race and ethnicity. At least three states — Nevada, North Dakota and Nebraska — and five U.S. territories have yet to release any demographic information about the cases and deaths they’ve reported so far.

But even the places reporting some demographic data aren’t necessarily giving the full picture. For both cases and deaths, almost every state is missing varying amounts of race and ethnicity data — data that’s critical to understanding how communities are being affected by the novel coronavirus.

According to our review of data available, 18 states and U.S. territories are not reporting information on the race and ethnicity of people who have died of COVID-19.1

As confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. exceed 1 million, many states are releasing racial and ethnic data on who is getting sick. But some, including much of the Great Plains and Mountain West, have not released racial and ethnic information on deaths. And the states that are reporting that data are generally only sharing the number of fatalities known to be caused by COVID-19 — the official death count likely significantly underestimates the pandemic’s true toll.

The gaps in reporting at the state level make getting an accurate national picture all the more difficult. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data on cases includes race and ethnicity information for less than half of all cases reported to the federal government.

Indeed, many states releasing breakdowns of COVID-19 cases are missing significant chunks of data. Of those that have released some demographic data on cases, at least 18 states are missing information on more than 30 percent of cases in their data for either race or ethnicity.

And because of the lack of uniform reporting guidelines, some states don’t even specify what percentage of their cases are reporting racial or ethnic information, making it difficult to get the full picture of how many cases are missing.2

Georgia, for example, which received nationwide scrutiny for reopening small businesses before experiencing a 14-day decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations, has race data for less than 70 percent of cases statewide. African Americans make up about 32 percent of the state’s population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, but constitute nearly half of the state’s coronavirus cases for which the patient’s race is known.3

Similarly, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, which together have more than 100,000 cases and nearly 7,000 deaths, are missing racial and ethnic information in 50 percent to 70 percent of their cases because of incomplete reporting from health care providers.

Some of the states hit hardest by the coronavirus, including New York, New Jersey and Louisiana — all states with large urban areas with huge populations of people of color — are releasing racial information on deaths but not on cases.

The data problem is particularly acute when it comes to Latino and Hispanic Americans. COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on black Americans has gotten a decent amount of attention, but the limited amount of data released by states shows that Hispanic and Latino populations also appear to be disproportionately hit by the pandemic in some parts of the country. However, missing data and varying race reporting guidelines have made getting an accurate count of cases in that community nearly impossible. Some states provide separate breakdowns of race and ethnicity, while others lump Hispanic and Latino identities into the racial breakdown.

For example, California reports racial and ethnic breakdown together under the following categories: Latino, white, Asian, African American/black, multi-race, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, and “other.”

In comparison, Louisiana reports racial and ethnic breakdowns separately under the following categories for race: American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, black, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, white and “other.” The categories the state uses for ethnicity are Hispanic/Latino and non-Hispanic/Latino.

“This inability for us to do the most basic function, which is to aggregate data, is an example of our institutions in this nation having lost their capacity to be of service to people who need them the most,” said Michael McAfee, CEO of Policy Link, a national research advocacy organization focused on racial equality. “This is not hard to do. The question is: Is there the will there to do it?”

CORRECTION (May 7, 2020, 11:18 p.m.): A previous version of this article mistakenly said that the CDC does not release any race or ethnicity data for COVID-19 deaths. The article has been updated.


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Footnotes

  1. The data used in this article, for both cases and deaths, comes from The Atlantic’s The COVID Tracking Project, which collected it from individual states and territories. ABC News and FiveThirtyEight added data for Florida, which was missing from the project’s database, and updated data for South Carolina. All data in this article is accurate as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 6.

  2. The COVID Tracking Project’s data is also not always complete or wholly up to date. States update at different times, and in some states demographic data is updated less often than statewide data. In several states, the number of cases and deaths for which there is any race data is smaller than the total number of cases, which could mean that the percentage of cases and deaths for which race data is unknown is even higher than the percentages shown here.

  3. Excludes cases where the patient’s race is listed as “unknown.”

Soo Rin Kim is a politics and investigations reporter for ABC News.

Matthew Vann is a producer and reporter for ABC News.

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