Trump administration 'flying blind' without coronavirus race data, says testing czar

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — A top public health official in the Trump administration acknowledged Tuesday that no national coronavirus response for underserved communities is possible until laboratories that perform diagnostic testing begin to collect race-specific data. Such data will provide insight into whether communities of color that have suffered inordinately in the last several months are receiving the services they need to beat back the disease.

“We can’t develop a national strategy to reach the underserved, or know how well we’re doing, till we have the data that shows us whether we’re reaching them or not,” Adm. Brett Giroir told lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“What I don’t have is the national data to say how many African-Americans have been tested, how many Hispanics have been tested,” he said in his testimony, referring to two populations that have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic.

Admiral Brett P. Giroir, M.D., assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, testifies during the Senate Homeland Security and  Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled Evaluating the Federal Governments Procurement and Distribution Strategies in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, in Dirksen Building on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, testifies at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

As of late May, COVID-19, the lower-respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, had killed more than 20,000 African-Americans. Similar statistics for Latinos do not appear to be available, but they, too, have suffered from the coronavirus more than other groups have. In all, about 113,000 Americans so far have died from COVID-19.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently issued guidance mandating that laboratories must report not only diagnostic test results, as they have been doing, but precise data about each person tested, including age, gender, ZIP code, race and ethnicity.

After that guidance was released, the American Clinical Laboratory Association — a trade group that represents industry giants like Quest and LabCorp — issued a statement saying, in part, that improving “the current patchwork reporting system will require strong federal coordination and leadership.” The association said it would work with HHS to “gather as much data as possible to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic effectively.”

The Association of Public Health Laboratories, which represents state-run facilities, was equally supportive of the measure. “We want to know that we are able to test all communities,” APHL spokesperson Michelle Forman told Yahoo News. “We know that minority communities, especially the black community, have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19.”

The new data guidance goes into effect Aug. 1. Until then the nation will be “flying blind,” Giroir said. “We’re very anxious for that data,” he added, describing the current state of affairs as a “flaw in the system.”

Giroir, an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services, was appointed to lead the administration’s coronavirus testing response in March, when tests were not widely available to the country. He is expected to leave that position within days, as the Trump administration turns its attention to the economic factors of pandemic response.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20.8 million Americans have been tested for the coronavirus. But without virtually any information about who those people are, it has been difficult to say whether testing resources have been properly allocated. And if they have not been, the coronavirus could spread undetected — and thus unhindered — through vulnerable communities.

Health workers prepare to give people free COVID-19 tests without needing to show ID, doctor's note or symptoms at a drive-through and walk up Coronavirus testing center located at Barcroft Community Center in the Arlington, Virginia, zip code with the highest concentration of Coronavirus cases in on May 26, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Health workers prepare to give people free COVID-19 tests without requiring ID, a doctor's note or symptoms at a drive-through and walk-up testing center in Arlington, Va. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Some of those communities lack hospitals or, in some cases, even pharmacies. That led scholar Ibram X. Kendi to call the coronavirus a “racial pandemic” at a House of Representatives hearing last week.

Giroir appears to endorse that view, at least in the broadest terms. “Your ZIP code matters more than your genetic code,” he said on Tuesday, reflecting the growing concerns that housing segregation, environmental racism (that is, the placement of polluting industries and hazardous-waste sites near where people of color live) and lack of access to healthy food contribute to poor health outcomes among low-income and minority communities.

He explained that some testing sites were set up using the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index. But those sites represent a fraction of all diagnostic testing locations. And it is impossible to know who, exactly, has been tested there.

The lack of demographic data has infuriated people who say it is a sign of the Trump administration’s inattention to people of color. Testifying before Congress last week, CDC Director Robert Redfield took responsibility for the shortfall in reporting. “I want to apologize for the inadequacy of our response,” he said.

Giroir’s remarks came during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Other witnesses included Peter Gaynor, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, a Pentagon logistics expert.

The question about race-related data came from Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the committee’s ranking member. Last month, Peters introduced a bill that would create an Office of Equal Rights and Community Inclusion at FEMA to “eliminate racial, ethnic, and other underserved community disparities in the delivery of disaster assistance.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a leading contender to serve as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee in November’s election, also questioned Giroir and the other witnesses about racial disparities in pandemic response. “The magnitude of this crisis demands that FEMA address the unique needs of communities of color,” Harris wrote April 24 to FEMA’s Gaynor and Chad Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security. She charged that the agency “has a long history of providing inequitable disaster assistance that can devastate communities of color.”

The letter was co-signed by Peters and dozens of other Democrats in both the House and Senate.

Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-MI) holds a leaflet from the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) on COVID-19 while questioning Ken Cuccinelli (not pictured), senior official performing the duties of the deputy Homeland Security secretary(Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., holds a leaflet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19 during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on March 5. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

A response arrived on Monday evening, Harris said during the hearing. “It is not within FEMA’s purview to share the data,” Gaynor wrote to the senator. He said that Health and Human Services “continue to lead data collection and management,” thus effectively shifting the responsibility for such reporting to Giroir, who only minutes before Harris read out Gaynor’s words had already admitted that such reporting was necessary.

“This response is inadequate,” a spokesperson for Harris told Yahoo News after the hearing.

That hearing took place as mourners gathered in Houston for the funeral of George Floyd, the 46-year-old unarmed black man who was killed by Minneapolis police officers two weeks before. An autopsy revealed that Floyd had been infected with the coronavirus, though what killed him was Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee, pushing down on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Thumbnail cover photo: Doug Mills/Getty Images

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