Why is VDH Stockpiling Cases as Unknown Race?

By Carol J. Bova

The Northam administration started expressing concern about the disparity of racial impacts of COVID-19 as early as March. But the number of confirmed cases with race/ethnicity listed as “Unknown” has grown to 20,886, or 24% of all cases. How is such a huge gap in the data even possible?

Here’s the chronology:

March 11: The administration formed the Health Equity Workgroup (HEWG). “The HEWG was built into the initial forming of the COVID-19 Unified Command structure as directed by Dr. Norman Oliver, the Virginia Commissioner of Health. states the website.

April 8: Governor Ralph Northam said that race was unknown for 54% of COVID-19 cases. Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said that some private laboratories and private medical providers were not reporting the data. Said Northam: “We’re exploring ways to make sure that they do.”

April 20: The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) did not report race or ethnicity for 3,130 or 34% of all reported COVID-19 cases.

May 12: Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax sent a letter to Northam to create a statewide COVID-19 task force to address racial disparities in certain under-served communities, citing “alarming and glaring racial disparities” regarding COVID-19 data within the African-American and Latino communities.

May 12: VDH did not report race or ethnicity for 8,022 or 30% of all reported COVID-19 cases.

June 4: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, required “every laboratory that performs or analyzes a test that is intended to detect SARS-CoV-2 or to diagnose a possible case of COVID-19” to report the results from each such test to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) through existing public health data reporting methods, to state or local public health departments using existing reporting channels to ensure rapid initiation of case investigations by those departments. Reporting of these data elements was to begin as soon as possible but no later than August 1, 2020. Reporting should occur within 24 hours of results being known or determined, on a daily basis.

June 18: Northam held a bilingual press conference to talk about the disproportionate impacts of the virus on black and Hispanic communities.

June 18: VDH did not report race or ethnicity for 13,817 or 24.3 of all reported COVID-19 cases. (The Latino category was added June 14, and the number of cases with unknown race dropped by 3,245.)

On July 27, VDH did not report race or ethnicity for 20,886, still 24.3% of all reported COVID-19 cases.

Distributing the almost 21,000 unknown race cases would make a dramatic change in the proportion of cases by race. Unknown amounts to 140% of total black cases; or 107% of total white cases, or 82% of all Latino cases. Until VDH identifies the racial composition of those unknown cases, no one can say with any certainty how any racial/ethnic group has been impacted by the virus.

The void in the data prompts a series of questions.

  • Why hasn’t VDH or the Health Equity Work Group acted on this?
  • Would the results not fit the political agenda of the Northam administration?
  • Would the numbers be more in line with the population?
  • Would they show even greater disparities?
  • Why hasn’t Governor Northam or Health Commissioner Oliver followed through and done something about the number of Unknown race reports?
  • Why hasn’t VDH insisted on it already since HHS is requiring labs to include the patient age, race, ethnicity, sex, residence zip code and county with other required info on test results by August 1?

Carol J. Bova is a writer living in Mathews County.