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Race and Ethnicity to Be Included on COVID-19 Testing Data

COVID test sample

 

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 is disproportionately linked to serious illness and death in racial minorities.
  • Starting August 1, race and ethnicity will be required data points on all COVID-19 testing results.
  • The HHS will use demographic data to pinpoint at-risk populations and facilitate health care access.

New guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says labs must include demographic data like race and ethnicity in COVID-19 testing data. The guidance, issued on June 4, intends to address the fact that BIPOC are disproportionately affected by serious illness and death from COVID-19.

Following the announcement of these testing changes, Robert R. Redfield, MD, the director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), apologized for the inadequate federal response to racial disparities of COVID-19.

What This Means For You

Collecting race and ethnicity data can help health officials better identify at-risk populations so that they can take the next necessary steps for proper prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. If you need to get tested for COVID-19, the lab will collect personal information, like your name and your address, but that—and any other identifying information—will be removed before the report is sent to the CDC.

Why Does COVID-19 Affect Certain Populations More Than Others?

Where demographic data is already available for COVID-19 cases, health disparities based on race become clear. In New York City, for example, data available as of April 16 shows twice as many Black people died as White people (92.3 deaths per 100,000 compared to 45.2 per 100,000).

According to the CDC, several economic and social factors create roadblocks that can increase health disparities, including COVID-19-related illness, among certain racial and ethnic minority groups. Most of those factors can be broken down into four major areas: living conditions, work situations, reduced access to health care, and underlying conditions.

  • Living conditions: The CDC says racial and ethnic minorities may be more likely to live in densely populated areas and housing, which makes it harder to practice social distancing guidelines. Many of these densely populated neighborhoods are further away from medical facilities and grocery stores, which can make it more difficult to access care and supplies that allow you to safely stay home.
  • Work situations: According to the CDC, nearly a quarter of employed Hispanic and Black individuals are employed in service industry jobs compared to 16% of White individuals. And while Black people make up 12% of all employed workers in the U.S., they represent 30% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses. These essential roles increase exposure to infection since they can't be done remotely.
  • Reduced access to healthcare: The Hispanic population is 2.5 times as likely to be uninsured compared to White Americans, while Black Americans are 1.5 times as likely to be without insurance. This means that costs would have to come out of pocket, so care is more likely to be avoided.
  • Underlying conditions: Certain groups of people have higher rates of chronic illness that can make them more susceptible to infections like COVID-19. Compared to White Americans, Black Americans have higher rates of chronic underlying health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, that may increase the risk of serious illness from coronavirus infection.

However, in a working paper from the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, the authors warn against reducing the causes of racial disparities in COVID-19 to the factors mentioned above.

"We control for health insurance status, diabetes, poverty rates, obesity, smoking rates, and public transit use," the researchers said, after mentioning they also control for income. "The reason why African Americans face higher death rates is not because they have higher rates of uninsured, poverty, diabetes, etc. it must be some other mechanism. For example, it could be because the quality of their insurance is lower, the quality of their hospitals is lower, or some other systemic reason."

How Demographic Data Can Help

This new demographic information will pinpoint at-risk populations and help public health officials figure out targeted interventions. According to Taylor Paschal, MPH, a former community health assessment planner with the Virginia Department of Health, those interventions will take the form of policy change and increased funding.

"The more we know about an individual’s health, the more we know about a population’s health," Paschal told Verywell. "Recent studies have indicated that Black and Brown populations have had higher rates of positive COVID-19 cases and death.”

Paschal explains the importance of capturing demographic research extends beyond COVID-19.

"Understanding how a disease affects a population can allow for public health professionals to link social determinants of health, other health indicators, and the prevalence of a disease."

How Data Will Be Collected

Starting August 1, labs that test for COVID-19 will be required to report 18 pieces of information per test to their state or local health department. After the health department receives the information, they will remove the person’s name and forward it to the CDC. In addition to race and ethnicity, labs must report:

  • Type of test ordered
  • Device identifier
  • Test result
  • Result date
  • Specimen ID number
  • Patient age
  • Patient sex
  • Patient zip code
  • Patient county
  • Order provider name and NPI
  • Ordering provider zip code
  • Testing facility name
  • Testing facility zip code
  • Specimen source
  • Date test was ordered
  • Date specimen was collected

A Word From Verywell's Medical Review Board

"We know that coronavirus does not affect everyone equally. It particularly impacts older adults and those in certain racial and ethnic groups. The HHS now requires that demographic information be reported for all infected persons. This will give us a better picture of who is most at risk. We can then make decisions about testing and mitigation that target resources where they are most needed." — Anju Goel, MD, MPH

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. HHS announces new laboratory data reporting guidance for COVID-19 testing. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Updated June 4, 2020.

  2. CDC Chief Apologizes For Agency’s Lack Of Demographics Data, Will Add Requirement For States. Kaiser Health News. Updated June 5, 2020.

  3. NYC Health. COVID-19: Deaths, race, ethnicity. April 16, 2020.

  4. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups. Updated June 4, 2020.

  5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2018. October 2019.

  6. Artiga S, Orgera K, Damico A. Changes in health coverage by race and ethnicity since the ACA, 2010-2018. Kaiser Family Foundation. Updated March 5, 2020.

  7. Cunningham TJ, Croft JB, Liu Y, et al. Vital Signs: Racial Disparities in Age-Specific Mortality Among Blacks or African Americans—United States, 1999–2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2017;66(17);444–456. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6617e1

  8. Knittel CR, Ozaltun B. What does and does not correlate with COVID-19 death rates. MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research. June 2020.

  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. COVID-19 Pandemic Response, Laboratory Data Reporting: CARES Act Section 18115. Updated June 4, 2020.