Warren, Pressley renew call for data on race and coronavirus

(WASHINGTON) — Former 2020 candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren pushed yet again Friday morning for the federal government to shed a light on racial disparities rearing in the battle against coronavirus, this time calling on the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Seema Verma, whose agency collects data from millions of Americans enrolled in the government-run health care programs.

Verma told reporters at a White House coronavirus task force briefing earlier this week that her agency had data on coronavirus patients, including race, and planned to release that information. Verma didn’t provide a timeline and the data has not yet been released.

Warren paired up with Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Ed Markey, both Democrats from Warren’s state of Massachusetts, and called on Verma directly to release the data on Friday.

“We urge you to immediately release the data on COVID-19 testing, treatment (including hospitalizations and Intensive Care Unit admissions), and fatalities, broken down by race and ethnicity, gender, and area of the country. We are encouraged that you committed to releasing Medicare claims data of this nature in a White House press briefing on April 7, 2020,” Warren, Pressley and Markey, wrote in the letter to Verma, obtained by ABC News.

“We further call on CMS to continue releasing this data on a weekly basis throughout the duration of the coronavirus public health emergency,” they wrote.

Verma, who attended the White House coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, offered the information about Medicare and Medicaid data when the task force was fielding questions from reporters about the disproportionate deaths in African American communities from coronavirus.

“We now have a code for coronavirus so we can actually stratify by demographic information, so we can look at race as a factor. We can also look at what the underlying health issues are as well. So we will be providing that data very shortly. We will be giving that analysis,” Verma said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert in infectious disease, also answered the question, saying national data would be made public as soon as there’s enough “to make a meaningful statement.” Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the coronavirus task force, said the team was “assembling that data now.”

The calls for national data about coronavirus and race has grown louder over the last week as states and cities like Milwaukee, New York and Louisiana have published their own data showing blatant, and at times tragic, disparities between white and black residents, who are dying at significantly higher rates.

Seventy percent of coronavirus deaths in Milwaukee have been African Americans, even though African Americans are less than a third of the county’s population, for example. Similarly, in Chicago, African Americans are 30% of the population but 69% of coronavirus deaths; and in Louisiana, African Americans are 32% of the population but 70 percent of coronavirus deaths. In New York, preliminary data showed Latinos made up 34% of deaths in New York City, despite being 29% of the population, while African Americans were 28% of deaths, compared with 22% of the population.

But it’s not the first time Warren has called for such data, nor is it the first time she’s requested the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services release it. Back in late March, largely before states and cities had begun to make that information public, Warren was one of the first to call for public data in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. She and other legislators, including Pressley, asked HHS and it’s agencies — including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — to collect and report data about racial disparities and the illness spreading rapidly across the country.

Without the data, she and others warned, policy makers and researchers would be in the dark in addressing the existing health inequities already written into the system that risk “accelerating the impact” of coronavirus.

Warren, Pressley and Markey, however, wrote Verma directly on Friday to request the data collected by Medicare and Medicaid administrators, which they argued has been released in the past to track outbreaks, including for hospitalizations and deaths from the flu, and could be released immediately, thus quickly providing the most significant trove of national data on the coronavirus yet.

“The early data on the coronavirus pandemic is alarming: people of color are getting infected and dying at disproportionate rates. To effectively stop the spread of the virus and ensure equal access to free testing and treatment for communities of color, we need to leverage all the data available to the federal government. We have already called on CDC to release comprehensive racial and ethnic data and we are now calling on CMS to do the same,” Warren said in a statement to ABC News.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, “has been used in the past to track outbreaks of infectious diseases, including hospitalizations and deaths due to influenza,” Warren, Pressley and Markey wrote in the letter, referring to a system Medicare and Medicaid Services has previously used to track data based on race, ethnicity and other demographics during infectious disease outbreaks, a Warren aide said.

“There is no reason why this cannot be done to track coronavirus infections,” the legislators said in the letter.

The data could also be used to continue to track racial disparities down the road, particularly “to monitor disparities in uptake” of vaccines and make sure communities are receiving them equally, once one is available.

Data — both from states and on a limited level from the federal government — began to trickle in over the last week as political pressure intensified. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided some data Wednesday, though there were caveats.

The data was pulled from a small sample size during a limited time frame — 14 states during the month of March — and race and ethnicity data was only available from 580 patients hospitalized for coronavirus, out of a total of 1,482 patients in the report.

Still, it’s the largest amount of national data to have been provided so far — and it sheds new light on racial disparities seen in cities and states across the country that have collected such data.

According to the CDC, even though the racial breakdown from the population in the report was 59% white, 14% Latino and 18% black, 45% of hospitalized coronavirus patients were white and 8% were Latino, while 33% were black, “suggesting that black populations might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

Warren, after reviewing the data, said, “I’ll keep pushing until we have comprehensive nationwide data to ensure that communities of color have equal access to free testing & treatment.”

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