July 21, 2020

At Aging Hearing, Warren Highlights the Critical Importance of Collecting Race and Ethnicity Data to Address Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Seniors of Color

"If the Trump Administration doesn't start taking this virus seriously, tens of thousands more Americans will die. And a disproportionate number of those seniors will be people of color." Senator Warren believes the public health impacts of structural and systemic racism should be at the very heart of HHS' work and is working on legislation to support data collection, research at the CDC

Video of Hearing Exchange (Youtube)

Washington, DC - In a Special Committee on Aging hearing today, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned Eugene A. Woods, President and Chief Executive Officer of Atrium Health, a non-profit healthcare system that began collecting race and ethnicity data on COVID-19 from the outset of the pandemic. 

Mr. Woods testified that by collecting and using COVID-19 demographic data to inform treatment, Atrium Health was able to reduce racial inequity in their coronavirus response. Pointing to Atrium Health's success, Senator Warren highlighted the importance of the federal government collecting this data and raised concerns that the Trump Administration is still failing to collect comprehensive demographic data - including race and ethnicity - on COVID-19 testing, hospitalizations, and deaths.

Senator Warren has sent the Trump Administration multiple letters urging them to collect COVID-19 demographic data and introduced legislation - the COVID-19 Equitable Data Collection & Disclosure Act - that would force the CDC to publicly report COVID-19 demographic information. During the hearing, Senator Warren announced she is working on legislation to invest in understanding and eliminating the public health impacts of structural and systemic racism at the CDC. 

The full transcript and video of her exchange with the hearing witnesses is available below.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020
U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging

Video (Youtube)

Chairwoman Collins: Senator Warren. 

Senator Warren: Thank you very much, Madam Chair, and thank you very much for putting together this hearing. Seniors are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. People over 65 account for just 18 percent of coronavirus infections, but they make up 80 percent of the deaths. Nursing homes-where 1.3 million seniors live-have emerged as hotspots of infection. And systemic racism has put seniors of color at even greater risk of catching, and dying from, COVID-19. We're nowhere near controlling this pandemic. Public health officials are reporting tens of thousands of new cases, and hundreds of deaths, every day. Congress must act-fast-really fast to protect our seniors and contain this virus. We need to ramp up testing, we need to create a national contact tracing program. We need to stabilize our supply chain. And, we need better data to ensure that communities of color are getting the COVID-19 resources that they need. 

So let me start with you Mr. Woods. In your testimony, you talk about how Atrium Health developed a COVID-19 dashboard to track cases and deaths in real time. All of this data was stratified by race and ethnicity, as well as additional factors like geography. So, Mr. Woods, what did the data reveal about how communities of color were experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Eugene Woods: Thank you for the question Senator and for your leadership in this regard. I think quickly we realized and some of what the testimony of some of the other panelists is those social determinants of health have the cracks have been laid bare. The issues of lack of access to food, lack of access to healthcare, all of those in these communities we found that they were magnifying during this COVID pandemic. And so I think what we're realizing is that it's years of lack of investment in poor communities. Things we've talked about affordable housing, we've invested 10 million dollars in affordable housing before this pandemic because we knew you don't have a warm place and a warm home, you're not going to be healthy. We have fed about 10,000 kids through our Kids Eat Free Program because we realize if you don't have food, you can't be healthy. So I think it's just magnified the social and economic and healthcare disparities that we've known for a long time and we've been fortunate to have been part of a coalition to help address that straight on. 

Senator Warren: So I really do appreciate your work in this. And what I'm hearing you say is the demographic data you collected showed that communities of color faced barriers in accessing COVID-19 resources and in the responses. So let me just follow up with this though Mr. Woods, it's one thing to detect disparities, but it's another thing to actually tackle them. Did the data allow you to actually reduce racial inequity in your coronavirus response? 

Mr. Woods: We did, and as I mentioned in my testimony, because we have the unique ability to run our own  internal COVID tests, we were able to launch very quickly when we saw this data in these six different zip codes in the Charlotte area, we were able to work with the churches, work with Hispanic community, and we said rather that you come to us, we have nine fixed testing sites, let us go to you, but we don't want to assume we know where to go so please tell us where. So we were in church parking lots, we were at YMCA parking lots, and we also, it was mentioned earlier the one thing I want to focus on as much as anything, we have invested this past year seven million dollars just on interpretive and language services. We know that for example, that's a really important part of reaching this community so it's not just taking the data going to where the community and needs are but really making sure we had the language that be able to speak to people on their terms.

Senator Warren: Right, so in other words, by collecting detailed demographic data, you could develop a targeted, data-driven response to COVID-19 and send resources where they were most needed and send the appropriate kind of resources to those places. So from the outset of this pandemic, the Trump Administration should have collected demographic data to guide its COVID-19 response. But it didn't. So instead, my colleagues and I spent months pushing HHS to publicly report race and ethnicity data. And in the end, we had to force HHS to issue a report on COVID-19 racial disparities. Still, only 55 percent of cases reported to CDC to date include information on race and ethnicity. So, let me ask it a different way Mr. Woods, without up-to-date, comprehensive demographic data about COVID-19, do you believe that the federal government will be able to craft a pandemic response that provides communities of color with the resources that they need? 

Mr. Woods: What I can do is speak from our experience, without the data that we had to respond to this community in real time our data is updated actually every two hours so we know exactly where testing disparities are, where the incidents of COVID. We have a map that I look at every single day in terms of how it's spreading so from our experience, without that data, without that real time data, it is really difficult to contain and ultimately eliminate the COVID. 

Senator Warren: That's really important, so it's part of the reason why I'm still fighting for comprehensive coronavirus data. Just last week, Ranking Member Casey and I asked HHS to report demographic data on residents and workers in nursing homes to better track COVID-19 infections and to better track deaths among seniors. We need to put the public health impacts of systemic racism at the very heart of the CDC's work, and I'm working on legislation to do this, in this pandemic and beyond. If the Trump Administration doesn't start taking this virus seriously, tens of thousands more Americans will die. And a disproportionate (inaudible) number of those seniors will be people of color. That outcome is unacceptable. Congress must act. 

Thank you Madam, Chair.