April 08, 2020


Calls for Commonwealth to lead nation in releasing demographic data for testing, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19

Newton, MA – As cities and states around the country confront troubling racial and ethnic inequities in COVID-19 death rates and testing access, Congressman Joe Kennedy III today called on Massachusetts health care regulators to collect and release demographic data related to the testing for and treatment of COVID-19 in real time. In a letter to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Kennedy wrote that this data is essential not only to combatting racism in our health care system but to ensuring we are able to flatten the curve of this pandemic.

Despite pressure from federal elected officials, the Trump Administration's Department of Health and Human Services has so far failed to meaningfully require demographic data collection on COVID-19. In his letter today, Kennedy called on Massachusetts health officials to set the national standard for equity in its pandemic response. 

“No disease can be called an equalizer in a health care system where skin color continues to influence who lives and dies," said Kennedy. "The reports emerging in Massachusetts and across the country make clear that communities of color are once again bearing the brunt of a national crisis. Black and brown patients are facing higher death rates, lower quality of care and barriers to testing. These inequities are familiar, unsurprising, and inexcusable. They plague not just our health care, but our housing, immigration policies, criminal justice, transportation, environmental protection, and every other corner of our system -- compounding today in unthinkable tragedy for too many families.

“Even in our Commonwealth – home to some of the greatest health care facilities in the world – health care injustice is a defining feature of our response. And no matter how brave, strong, or good our health care providers are, they are no match for the racial inequities rooted deeply in our system. We need data to expose, confront and address these disparities -- not just because it is the right thing to do but because it is necessary to get ahead of a pandemic that shows no signs of abating soon. Massachusetts could -- and should -- set a standard here for the rest of the nation to follow."

Kennedy’s full letter can be found below:

Dear Commissioner Bharel,

Thank you to your agency’s effort in responding to COVID-19. This unprecedented pandemic is pushing our public health system to the brink, and the work you and your staff are doing is making an enormous difference in communities large and small.

I am writing regarding recent reporting showing that communities of color across Massachusetts and the country are disproportionately hit by this pandemic. While these stories are horrifying, they are not surprising, because these inequities persist past COVID-19. Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in densely populated communities, occupy low-wage jobs that do not offer paid sick leave and therefore cannot afford to miss work. They are more likely to be un- or underinsured, and thus more concerned about the cost of health care which leads them to forgo treatment. When people of color do seek care, they are met with racial bias because we know that institutional racism in American health care remains profound; African American women are over three times more likely to die during child birth, African Americans are less likely to receive the medications needed when in pain, and racial and ethnic minority patients are more likely to receive lower quality health care than white patients.[1] Racial bias in medicine is inescapable, expansive, and is persisting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the country, racial and ethnic minorities are currently at great risker at contracting and dying from COVID-19. Recent data has shown that while African Americans make up a smaller percentage of the population in Michigan (14 percent), they make up 33 percent of COVID-19 cases and 41 percent of deaths.[2] In states like Louisiana, which is 32.7 percent African American, they are a startling 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths.[3] Early insight from Massachusetts suggests our Commonwealth is not immune to these disparities. An official at Massachusetts General Hospital has indicated that despite being 12.3 percent of the population, as many as 40 percent of their COVID-19 patients are Latino, disproportionately hailing from already underserved communities like Chelsea.[4]

As we respond in real-time to this threat, it is absolutely critical that we have the data to understand exactly where, how, and why these disparities persist. Reporting suggests that the high rate among these communities results from the systemic racism within medicine as minority patients are less likely to receive a COVID-19 test despite showing symptoms.[5] Lack of testing results in lower rates of quarantine and self-isolation and further contributes to the spread of COVID-19 among communities. These numbers are staggering and must be further analyzed and addressed. Beyond the injustice of our health care system, persistent inequities throughout our society have left minority communities more at risk in this pandemic. Housing segregation and a resulting reliance on public transportation, criminal justice disparities, a broken immigration system, climate and environmental injustice, underfunded community development, and many other side effects of generational, societal racism underscore these numbers.

Currently, data collection is incomplete, hampering our ability to understand why COVID-19 is more prevalent among racial and ethnic minorities and whether they are receiving lower standards of care. It is essential that we remedy this, not only to correct injustice, but to curb a pandemic that shows no signs of abating any time soon. While it may be an additional ask of an already overwhelmed system, the expeditious collection and public reporting of demographic data for COVID-19 testing, hospitalizations and deaths cannot be an afterthought. I respectfully ask that you work with hospitals and public health offices throughout the Commonwealth to make this data is available as quickly and consistently as possible so we can respond in real time. Waiting weeks and months to begin the reporting of demographic data is too late.

Thank you for your leadership on this effort and for your work to ensure the health and safety for those across Massachusetts. I hope that you are recovering well and I stand ready to work with you on this critical issue.

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For Immediate Release:
April 8, 2020

Dan Black (202) 225-5931