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Watchdog Says That Racial and Ethnic Gaps Still Remain in the CDC's COVID-19 Data

Centers for Disease Control data on race and ethnicity about COVID-19 is sometimes "missing, inconsistent or inaccurate," an inspector general report says.

There are known racial and ethnic disparities for COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but the COVID-19 data at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has key gaps in terms of race and ethnicity for COVID-19 testing, cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The CDC's data give the agency only an "incomplete picture of COVID-19 disparities," the agency's watchdog says in a new report.

The concern about the agency's data isn't new, and the CDC, which serves as the government's primary public health agency, has improved its data quality since the start of the pandemic, according to the recent report from the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services. But gaps still remain. 

According to the report, CDC is addressing data issues in part through a modernization initiative. One goal of the effort is to "make important data, including racial and ethnic data, more complete."

The CDC gets its data from state, territorial and local entities, as well as public health providers like labs and hospitals. Right now, data on race and ethnicity about COVID-19 is sometimes "missing, inconsistent or inaccurate," the report says.

As of January 2022, 67% of the CDC's COVID-19 testing data doesn't have race and ethnicity info attached to it, and neither does 34% of the agency's case data. Death data is the most complete in terms of including race and ethnicity information.

The inspector general also looked into data about socioeconomic status associated with COVID-19. 

Currently, the CDC doesn't have a standard for reporting socioeconomic data for COVID-19. It uses community-level data to understand community vulnerabilities, according to the report, but can't do "direct analysis of individual socioeconomic disparities in COVID-19 testing, cases, hospitalizations, or deaths." 

The CDC does ask for race and ethnicity data from those that report data to the agency, but it can't require it. Labs doing COVID-19 tests are required to send race and ethnicity data. 

One concern is that the health care providers, states and entities that give the CDC data don't necessarily define racial and ethnic categories the same way, meaning that people of the same race and ethnicity in different areas of the country might be reported as part of different demographic groups. 

Some jurisdictions combine groups that the federal government defines as distinct in broader categories. This makes it more difficult to compare disparities or find trends, the report says.

Another problem: of the data that the CDC does have, there's a concern that it could be skewed towards the racial and ethnic makeup of the jurisdictions that are reporting race and ethnicity data to the CDC.

So far, the agency is supplementing its data with other sources, like the U.S. Census, to identify disproportionately impacted communities, the report states. It has also worked with reporters of COVID-19 data to improve the quality of their data and sped up its agency-wide data modernization efforts.