Vermont is tracking the race of people dying from COVID-19 in the state, but documenting that same information for those who tested positive is lagging.
As of the week of March 30, the race/ethnicity of those who have tested positive is unknown in 73% of cases, according to Patsy Kelso, the state’s epidemiologist. Of the remaining cases, 97% were reported as white and 100% were identified as not Hispanic or Latinx.
At least 20 people who died from the disease in Vermont are white, according to a records request for death certificates filed by the Free Press.
So who’s responsible for collecting data on people testing positive for COVID-19, and why is it missing for most of the cases?
Race and coronavirus in Vermont hospitals
“The reason health systems should collect race, ethnicity and language data is to identify disparities that might exist in our communities,” said Stephen Graves, manager for the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program, in an email.
“If the disparities go unaddressed, this can have detrimental effects to the care patients receive, particularly patients of color.”
Black people are impacted by COVID-19 at disproportionate rates across the country, according to The New York Times. States like Illinois, North and South Carolina, Louisiana and Michigan are reporting over-representation in positive tests and deaths (sometimes both) for this community.
The hospital has been collaborating with the Department of Health, the city of Burlington, and local organizations to distribute informational guides and resources translated in over 10 different languages for New American residents.
When it comes to collecting demographic information from patients, the University of Vermont Medical Center has different methods, including over the phone, at a routine check-in, or prior to an exam.
But part of the effort for his program, Graves said, is to standardize the collection process across the health system.
How Vermont collects data on race for positive COVID-19 tests
The race and ethnicity of individuals impacted by COVID-19 is largely unclear.
The Free Press has death certificates for 21 of the individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. Almost all were white, except one 86-year-old female who was Asian Indian, lived in Essex Junction and died April 1.
So why do we know so much about the race of those who died, but less for COVID-19 cases? It boils down to a form filled out after someone tests positive.
The lab requisition form filled out prior to testing doesn’t include fields for race and ethnicity.
If someone tests positive, individuals working in epidemiology for the state fill out the case report form, which can mean contacting the individual or a health care provider (sometimes both) for the information.
Race and ethnicity are included on this second set of paperwork, but marking these sections is not mandatory.
These measures can get overlooked in this process for reasons that range from a lack of uniformity in collecting the data to human error.
“It’s hard to get the ER doc on the phone,” Kelso said. “They don’t have a ton of time for us to go through that long form and ask all the questions in the order that they’re on the form.”
The interaction can look something like this: Someone in epidemiology says they need information on an individual. The provider pulls up the electronic record and reads details back.
We capture it as they’re saying it, Kelso said. Race and ethnicity aren’t always mentioned by the provider.
Sometimes the person on the other end can identify the individual’s race as white, but are less sure when it comes to ethnicity.
“They’ll say, you know, ‘I assume non-Hispanic,” she said. “Or they’ll just say, ‘I didn’t ask.'”
It’s easy to miss questions on that tiny-print form, she said, admitting she’s returned to the form and realized she forgot to ask about certain items, including race and ethnicity.
“It came to our attention, I think through a separate media request a couple of weeks ago about this, that the information was often missing,” she said.
According to Kelso, the Health Department’s data team has emailed epidemiology to gather details on race and ethnicity.
This story may be updated. Elizabeth Murray contributed to this reporting.
Contact Maleeha Syed at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-495-6595. Follow her on Twitter @MaleehaSyed89.
Contact Ethan Bakuli at (802) 556-1804 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BakuliEthan.
All coverage of the coronavirus is being provided for free to our readers. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Free Press.
Read or Share this story: https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2020/04/10/how-vermont-collecting-data-race-during-coronavirus-outbreak/5131223002/