RICHMOND, Va. -- Gov. Ralph Northam said Virginia needs to improve how it tracks racial demographic data in COVID-19 cases.
"In a pandemic such as this, it is critical that everyone has as much information as possible from the decision makers to the public," Northam said.
However, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said the state does not have race and ethnicity data for 53 percent of its COVID-19 cases.
"That's mainly because of labs receiving data from providers who have taken test specimens from patients and sent it in without the racial and ethnic background information recorded," Oliver explained. "If the labs don't have the information, they can't report it to state officials."
Officials had racial and ethnic data for 1,381 of last week's cases, according to a VDH weekly report published Monday.
Oliver said 386 were African American or about 28 percent of the cases.
"Historically, since about In 1970, the African American population in the Commonwealth has been around 20 percent," Oliver said.
There were 159 Latinx people diagnosed with COVID-19, which accounted for about 12 percent of cases, Oliver said.
Of the state's 75 deaths, 14 were African American and three were Latinx.
"About half of those deaths had no [ethnic] information, so that number could be an underestimate," Oliver acknowledged.
The remarks come as the coronavirus is cutting a particularly devastating swath through an already vulnerable population: black Americans.
Leaders in cities hard-hit by the pandemic, like New Orleans, have been sounding the alarm over what they see as a disturbing trend of the virus killing African Americans at a higher rate, along with a lack of overall information about the race of victims as the nation’s death toll mounts.
"We know that longstanding racial inequities in things like access to health care, education and economic opportunities lead to differences in underlying health conditions," Northam said. "The existence of such inequities is one reason why communities of color, including African American people, are more likely to have some of the underlying health conditions that put them at a greater risk with COVID-19."
Forty-two percent of the victims whose demographic data was shared by local officials were black, even though African Americans account for roughly 21% of the population in the areas covered by an Associated Press analysis.
Oliver said Virginia is one of less than a dozen states actually reporting ethnicity on its confirmed COVID-19 cases.
"It is difficult, but important for everyone to be reporting the same types of data, so we have a better picture of what this virus looks like here in Virginia," Northam said. "That obligates us to do a better job of tracking racial demographic data have confirmed cases."
Oliver said VDH crews who complete case and contact investigations are responsible for the state's 47 percent of data collected.
"We have the same problem with respect to deaths from COVID-19," Oliver said. "About half of the deaths that we have, have no racial and ethnic data. That we can do much more to resolve because as the death certificates are generated, we can go back and back fill that information."
Northam said the state is "exploring ways to make sure" private labs and partners report the data.
Most patients with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms. However, in a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can lead to more severe illness, including death, particularly among those who are older or those who have chronic medical conditions.
COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person.
Virginia health officials urged the following precautions:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.Stay home when you are sick.
- Avoid contact with sick people.Avoid non-essential travel.