Missing demographic data among Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 vaccine recipients could be compounding issues with vaccine rollout efforts among the commonwealth’s Black and Hispanic communities, experts fear.
Barry Ciccocioppo, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said it has been a “challenge” to collect demographic data not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country, as many states – including Pennsylvania – rely on Centers for Disease Control guidance, while others establish their own reporting practices.
In Pennsylvania, this disconnect is happening on a local and statewide scale.
“Each of the local vaccine providers have their own system for collecting and reporting this data to the state,” Ciccocioppo told the Capital-Star.
Frustration over the lack of a centralized, uniform method for reporting demographic data led former state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine to issue an order last year, requesting the data be collected.
“The department’s direction on reporting requirements for vaccine providers is clearly spelled out in the Order issued Dec. 15, 2020,” Ciccocioppo said, adding, “This reporting is important to protect the public’s health; for example, comprehensive laboratory testing data can contribute to understanding disease incidence and trends, inform mitigation and control activities, and understand health disparities across the Commonwealth.”
The department’s order currently requires the following demographic and patient information be collected by vaccine providers:
- First, middle and last names
- Date of birth
- Race and ethnicity Address (street, city, county, state, zip)
- Primary phone number
While the Department of Health told the Capital-Star that data reporting is an issue, the agency also said it could not rule out other factors, including access and outreach issues, such as transportation and language barriers.
“A combination of both factors may be at play,” Ciccocioppo said. “We are providing the data being report[ed] and continuing to work with vaccine providers to improve reporting of race and ethnicity information.”
As of Friday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 8,020 Black Pennsylvanians had “fully received” both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 220,939 white Pennsylvanians.
Additionally, 5,377 people of Hispanic ethnicity “fully received” both doses of the vaccine compared to 194,928 non-Hispanic people.
A report from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that Black people were less likely than white people to live near “a pharmacy, clinic, hospital or health center that can administer COVID-19 vaccines.”
In a briefing with reporters Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf admitted that the commonwealth does not have enough demographic information to draw conclusions about the vaccine rollout efforts aimed at reaching Black and Hispanic communities across Pennsylvania.
“We don’t know as much as we need to know when we’re figuring out how we can get a better handle on the statistics.”
Still, experts are concerned how a lack of data will affect diverse communities.
In New York, changes were made in vaccine distribution efforts to address disparities based on demographic data, including transportation support, outreach efforts and increasing the number of vaccine administrators at distribution sites.
Citing New York as an example, Utibe Essien, an assistant professor of medicine at UPMC, said demographic data can drive changes in policy and resource distribution.
In Pennsylvania, where an August 2020 report found that 40 percent of race and ethnicity data on COVID-19 mortality is missing, a lack of data could affect distribution efforts to communities of color.
“We’re not going to be able to know if we need to reframe our messaging,” Essien told the Capital-Star, adding that a “one-size-fits-all approach” will not focus the need on the hardest hit communities.
While the data is crucial to improving Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout, Essien said addressing structural and patient concerns, including providing additional resources to providers who collect data and improving trustworthiness among healthcare providers is needed.
“Checking off that race and ethnicity box is not necessarily going to get you the care you need,” Essien said, adding that the “legacy of racism is very real.”
Reiterating the data’s importance, on Friday, Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam reminded vaccine providers that demographic data needed to be reported for each person receiving the vaccine.
“Data,” Essien said, “is just as critical as getting vaccines in arms.”