NEWS

This New Data Tracking Tool Takes a Closer Look at COVID-19 Disparities

Crowd of people wearing face masks.

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Key Takeaways

  • The Health Equity Tracker helps people visualize the disparities in health outcomes for different racial and ethnic groups.
  • Users can look up data on COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, the prevalence of diabetes, the number of uninsured individuals, and rates of poverty for their county and state.
  • The project leaders hope the tool will expand to encompass more groups and conditions to address future public health needs.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, certain groups have disproportionately borne the brunt of the crisis. But without a robust data source to show COVID-19 outcomes by race and ethnicity, it can be difficult to know exactly where and how these disparities exist.

To tackle this problem, a group of researchers, data scientists, and advocates launched the Health Equity Tracker last month to help people visualize racial and ethnic disparities in some key health outcomes. 

“The adage, for far too long, has been, ‘if there's no data there's no problem,’” Nelson Dunlap, JD, chief of staff at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine, tells Verywell. "Our response was if we can find the data, then you can't really ignore the problem any longer."

A team at Morehouse University collaborated with a group of fellows from Google.org and various public health advocates. The project was supported through funding and resources from Google, Gilead Sciences, the Anne E. Casey Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Foundation.

“We’ve all heard how the pandemic has affected vulnerable communities across the country due to structural and long-standing health inequities. Even so, there was no central resource to help consolidate, visualize and understand the data on a national scale.” Chelsea Seabron, manager of Google.org, said in a statement. “For me, the process of creating this during a time of devastation has helped me translate mourning into meaning.”

How the Project Collects and Tracks Data

The tracker now includes more than 26 million lines, each representing a single COVID-19 patient. The COVID-19 data is sorted by state and county, race and ethnicity, sex, age, whether the patient was hospitalized, and whether they died.

The tracker also includes charts and maps detailing U.S. rates of:

  • Chronic obtrusive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diabetes
  • Uninsured individuals
  • Poverty

Users can see how each of these conditions impacts different racial and ethnic groups. They can also break the numbers down by county or state, and compare one condition with another.

To create the database, the team pooled information from various data sources. These include a restricted access detailed case surveillance dataset from CDC, state-level health insurance and poverty data from American Community Survey, details on diabetes and chronic obtrusive pulmonary disease prevalence from America’s Health Rankings, and the Covid Tracking Project’s racial data project.

The Covid Tracking Project, a foundation-funded and volunteer-driven effort by the Atlantic to fill the need for public health data tracking early in the pandemic, formed the basis for the Health Equity Tracker. Dunlap says the various existing COVID-19 tracking projects provide crucial information on the pandemic. But the Health Equity Tracker is the first to present this data through the lens of racial and ethnic health disparities.

“We know that COVID wasn't targeting the most vulnerable among us, but rather that the social and political determinants of health that undergird our society were being exacerbated by COVID,” Dunlap says. 

The tool is available online for anyone to access. Dunlap says he imagines it will be useful for state policymakers deciding where to allocate resources in their state and data scientists trying to understand public health trends. But he hopes it can help even the average person wanting to compare outcomes in their county to others.

Throughout the tracker, the team includes information boxes, white papers, and videos to explain the context for the data—a key component in making the information accessible and useful. 

“It's about putting context in there and making it digestible and easy to use so that the data scientists down the hallway from the Morehouse School of Medicine can use it but also my grandmother in rural Kentucky can hop on there and understand what's happening in her given area,” Dunlap says.

What This Means For You

The Health Equity Tracker is available for public use. You can search for information here on COVID-19 cases, the prevalence of diabetes, the number of uninsured people, and more in your county and state.

Gaps in the Data

In some instances, the tracker does not include data for certain health outcomes. According to the Health Equity Tracker site, 38% of cases reported unknown race or ethnicity. Some states haven’t provided sufficient data disaggregated by race and ethnicity to the CDC. States with insufficient data include:

  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Texas
  • Wyoming

“Public health data can be inconsistent, collected in silos, or missing completely,” Seabron says. “Knowing where these blind spots are is valuable. When we’re aware of unknown or missing data, we’re able to take action toward improving data collection and reporting standards.”

Common standards for reporting race and ethnicity are set by the National Institutes of Health Office of Management and Budget. They outline five race categories and two ethnicity categories. Still, not all states use the same standards for determining racial and ethnic groups. It’s a piecemeal process—federal agencies like the CDC depend on states to collect and report data.

Dunlap says that filling in the gaps in information is just as important as understanding what that data represents. He hopes that pointing out these holes will encourage users to push for greater transparency in health data collection and sharing.

“Everyone knows it's very hard to get comprehensive granular racial and ethnic data for a number of systemic reasons,” Dunlap says. “Being able to highlight those data gaps is a story in and of itself.” 

A Tool for the Future

The team is now working to expand the tracker to include information on political determinants of health for racial and ethnic groups. Certain policies like how quickly and forcefully state officials imposed lockdown restrictions may have impacted the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in a given area.

Dunlap describes the Health Equity Tracker as a living project. The project leaders hope to receive feedback so they can include data that users want to see. Seabron says that future iterations of the tracker will aim to include data on conditions like mental and behavioral health, and include analysis for people who are LGBTQ+ and those with disabilities.

“We want to leverage this moment to really shift towards addressing health inequity so the next time a crisis comes up—the next time a pandemic hits—we can just focus on the health outcomes and not have to deal with the exacerbated health inequities and disparities,” Dunlap says.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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