November 18, 2020

Warren Urges CDC to More Accurately Communicate COVID-19 Mortality Risks To the Public and Appropriately Adjust for Age, Race, and Ethnicity

“By failing to adjust COVID-19 mortality rates by age in its public data releases, the CDC may not be providing an accurate assessment of the increased risk of death and serious illness for communities of color relative to white Americans of the same age.” Recent analysis of COVID-19 mortality data adjusting for differences in age between racial and ethnic groups found significantly wider gaps in the overall mortality.

Text of Letter

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, requesting that the CDC clarify its public communication about COVID-19 and risks relating to race and ethnicity by including age adjustments in their publications of COVID-19 mortality data. 

"To date, the CDC has not consistently articulated risks and has not provided full and complete information on the degree to which age and race or ethnicity interact to inflate the risk of COVID-19 mortality for communities of color. I ask that the CDC begin including an age adjustment in its publications on COVID-19 mortality among racial and ethnic minorities and more accurately describe COVID-19 racial disparities in its communications, publications, and public statements," wrote Senator Warren. 

The CDC has identified many inequities in social determinants of health that put racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. The agency has also clearly articulated the relationship between age and risks associated with COVID-19, finding that 8 out of 10 COVID-19 deaths have been among Americans over the age of 65. But the CDC has not always properly communicated the interaction of these characteristics, leading to inaccuracies in how the CDC data reflects mortality and illness rates for young Black and Latino Americans.

The CDC has frequently used messaging and infographics about the higher risk of death due to COVID-19 for people of color that do not tell the full story. One key CDC infographic reported that mortality risk is 2.1 times higher for Black Americans, 1.1 times higher for Latino Americans, 1.4 times higher for American Indian or Alaska Native people, and the same for Asian Americans compared to non-Hispanic white Americans. However, a recent analysis of COVID-19 mortality data adjusting for differences in age between racial and ethnic groups found significantly wider gaps in the overall mortality. Using this age-adjusted race and ethnicity data, analysts observed mortality rates that were 3.2 times higher for Black Americans, 3.2 times higher for Latino Americans, 3.1 times higher for Native American and Alaska Native people, 2.4 times higher for Pacific Islanders, and 1.2 times higher for Asian Americans compared to non-Hispanic white Americans.  These higher risks are exacerbated by the  fact that the median age of those that contract COVID-19 among communities of color is much younger than that of white Americans who contract the disease, making the disproportionate number of deaths among communities of color all the more disturbing. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Senator Warren has been working to ensure racial equity in the federal response to COVID-19.

  • In March, Senator Warren and her colleagues wrote to Health & Human Services Secretary Azar urging the agency to collect racial and ethnic demographic data on COVID-19 testing and treatment. 
  • In April, Senator Warren led her colleagues in introducing bicameral legislation to require the federal government to collect and report coronavirus demographic data, including race and ethnicity.
  • While questioning Eugene A. Woods, President and Chief Executive Officer of Atrium Health, at a Special Committee on Aging hearing, Senator Warren highlighted the importance of collecting race and ethnicity data to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on seniors of color. 
  • Along with her colleagues, Senator Warren sent a letter to the CDC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) urging them to begin collecting and publicly releasing demographic data on residents and workers of nursing homes who are diagnosed with COVID-19. 
  • Senator Warren and Congresswoman Underwood (D-Ill.) introduced the Maternal Health Pandemic Response Act to improve research and data collection, safeguard the health of pregnant and postpartum individuals, and dedicate resources to combat the maternal mortality and morbidity crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Alongside Senators Murray, Booker and House colleagues, Senator Warren introduced the Corrections Data Transparency Act to require the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the United States Marshals Service, and state governments to collect and publicly report detailed data about COVID-19 in federal, state, and local correctional facilities.