Wolf: ‘Lack of statistics’ hinders state Health Disparity task force’s efforts

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the members of the task force.

On a call with journalists Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf said that 69 percent of race data is still unreported, despite state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine’s earlier order for physicians and hospitals to report race data as it relates to COVID-19 cases. 

Earlier this month, Wolf announced the creation of the COVID-19 Response Task Force for Health Disparity to address how COVID-19 affects Pennsylvania’s minority populations, but, so far, unreported race data threatens its progress. 

Wolf also said that “little to no data” has been reported on ethnicity. 

“One of the problems we have is that we have heard how COVID-19 is hitting minority populations – in particular African-Americans – hardest across the United States and anecdotally in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said, “but we lack the statistics needed to determine the severity of this issue here.” 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, one-third of cases reported in Allegheny County did not have race/ethnicity data available. 

Meanwhile, in the southeastern part of the state, Montgomery County only provides race/ethnicity data for COVID-19 deaths and Chester and Delaware Counties report no race/ethnicity data. 

Reginald Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania called the lack of data reported by counties “unacceptable.”

In a letter to Wolf and Levine, Shuford said, “Because of the lack of this data in Pennsylvania, it is difficult to fully understand COVID-19’s impact on Black and brown Pennsylvanians.”

While Wolf couldn’t say why healthcare systems aren’t proactively reporting race and ethnicity data to state officials, he urged medical facilities and healthcare providers to follow the Department of Health’s mandate to report that data. 

“We need to get more medical professionals collecting and reporting race data about their patients,” Wolf said, adding that increased access to testing for the state’s vulnerable population is critical to fighting COVID-19. 

“We also need to make sure our vulnerable populations have equal access to testing,” Wolf said. “By identifying issues, like testing locations and hours of operation, and providing information on these locations to our minority communities, we can make sure testing is accessible to everyone. … And we need to make sure testing is available to everyone, regardless of means, previous medical care, or existing relationships to a physician. This will help us identify difficult-to-detect cases.”

Led by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the task force is reaching out to community leaders across the state to compile feedback, ideas and comments on the issue with the goal of making recommendations to Wolf on addressing the long-and-short-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We know of instances in Pennsylvania where major COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in vulnerable communities, including ones where people do not speak English,” Wolf said in a statement. “We’re working to improve our data collection so we can get a better statistical understanding of how the virus has affected different groups of people.”

Also on the task force are: 

From the Lt. Gov’s Office:

  • Secretary Brandon Flood (Board of Pardons)
  • Bobby Maggio (Coordinating Manager)
  • Julie Strickland-Gilliard
  • Steve McFarland
  • Christina Kauffman

DOH Office of Health Equity Response:

  • Brian Lentes
  • David Saunders

Diversity, Inclusion & Small Business Opportunities:

  • Deputy Secretary Kerry Kirkland

Marketing/Communications:

  • Carrie Lepore (DCED)
  • Sara Goulet (Gov’s Communications Office)

From Commissions:

  • Luz Colon (Latino Affairs)
  • Mohan Seshadri (Asian Pacific American Affairs)
  • Danielle Okai (Women’s Commission)
  • Jalila Parker (African American Affairs)
  • Nedia Ralston (Governor’s Southeast Regional Dir.)
  • Rafael Alvarez Febo (LGBTQ Affairs)

From Legislative Affairs:

  • Steven Pollard (Governor’s Legislative Affairs Office)

The task force has had three meetings so far, Fetterman said, and will continue to meet until the pandemic is over.

Cassie Miller
A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.