March 30, 2020

Lawmakers Urge HHS to Address Racial Disparities in Access to Testing and Treatment during the Coronavirus Pandemic

Currently, no federal agency is collecting racial and ethnic demographic data on COVID-19 tests, cases, or fatalities

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. -- United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), along with Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, sent a letter urging the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to collect racial and ethnic demographic data on testing and treatment for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in order to identify and address racial disparities. Currently, comprehensive demographic data on the racial and ethnic characteristics of people who are tested or treated for COVID-19 does not exist. Without demographic data, policy makers and researchers will have no way to identify and address ongoing disparities and health inequities that risk accelerating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Although COVID-19 does not discriminate along racial or ethnic lines, existing racial disparities and inequities in health outcomes and health care access may mean that the nation's response to preventing and mitigating its harms will not be felt equally in every community," the lawmakers wrote. "(L)ack of information will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in vulnerable communities."

Other socioeconomic factors may exacerbate racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes. Low-income people are more likely to have many of the chronic health conditions that experts have identified as risk factors for complications from COVID-19, and people of color are more likely to fall below the poverty line, work in low-wage jobs, and have fewer financial resources to draw upon in times of emergency. Additionally, unemployment, food insecurity and unstable or substandard housing conditions may further perpetuate disparities in health outcomes for people infected by the coronavirus, especially in low-income communities of color. A history of discrimination and marginalization has also left some people of color distrustful of the medical system, making them less likely to seek out timely care. These factors may all combine to accelerate the effects of the outbreak in the most vulnerable communities.

"Any attempt to contain COVID-19 in the United States will have to address its potential spread in low-income communities of color, first and foremost to protect the lives of people in those communities, but also to slow the spread of the virus in the country as a whole," wrote the lawmakers. "As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States continues to grow exponentially, we urge you not to delay collecting this vital information, and to take any additional necessary steps to ensure that all Americans have the access they need to COVID-19 testing and treatment."

Senator Warren also released the following statement: "Decades of structural racism have prevented so many Black and Brown families from accessing quality health care, affordable housing, and financial security, and the coronavirus crisis is blowing these disparities wide open. We need the government to step up in a big way to ensure that communities of color have equal access to free testing and treatment. Congresswoman Pressley and I aren't going to let up until we see solid data and real progress."

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Senator Warren has pressed the Trump Administration to respond effectively to deliver the robust set of resources needed to address this emergency. She recently unveiled detailed plans to increase diagnostic testing nationwide, and sounded the alarm alongside Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) over the Trump Administration's failure to deliver federal support for testing and care in Massachusetts. Earlier this month, she put out a plan for getting relief directly to workers, families, and small businesses, and has fought to prioritize federal aid for keeping workers on payroll and helping hospitals, states and localities respond to the crisis -- before bailing out giant corporations.