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Rep. Waters Urges HHS & FEMA to Release COVID-19 Demographic, Testing & PPE Distribution Data

April 13, 2020
Press Release

LOS ANGELES – In light of the alarming reports of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the African American community, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (CA-43), Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) urging the release of all demographic and resource allocation data regarding COVID-19 testing supplies, PPE, ventilators, and other medical equipment and supplies.

 

“I write to convey my grave concerns regarding the apparent disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the African American community and other racial minorities,” wrote Congresswoman Waters. “While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) did release this week limited data adding to preliminary state findings that there appear to be higher rates of COVID-19 deaths within the African American community relative to their representation in the population, there must be a coordinated effort to collect complete information leading to a response to ensure that the hardest hit racial groups are given sufficient federal support and resources.”

 

In the letter, Congresswoman Waters outlined the devastating impact of COVID-19 on African American communities, according to preliminary data from various locations across the United States, including Los Angeles County, California where African Americans make up 9 percent of the population and 17 percent of coronavirus deaths, and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin where African Americans make up 27 percent of the population and 70 percent of deaths. She also highlighted the “lack of transparency by FEMA, and a lack of a coordinated strategy between the Administration and the states, whether demographic data on COVID-19 is being properly used in the allocation of medical supplies.”

 

As a result, Congresswoman Waters requested that HHS and FEMA release the following information to Congress and the American people:

 

1.     “The comprehensive demographic data on the racial and ethnic characteristics of those treated, tested, and demonstrating symptoms for COVID-19, as collected by HHS, especially the CDC”; and

2.     “A complete and comprehensive explanation as to how FEMA has incorporated any and all data collected by HHS pursuant to request (1) into its medical supply distribution operation.”

 

The full text of her letter follows:

 

April 10, 2020

 

 

The Honorable Alex M. Azar II

Secretary

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

200 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20201

 

The Honorable Peter Gaynor

Administrator

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Federal Center Plaza

500 C St., NW

Washington, D.C. 20472

 

Dear Secretary Azar and Administrator Gaynor:

 

I write to convey my grave concerns regarding the apparent disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the African American community and other racial minorities. While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) did release this week limited data adding to preliminary state findings that there appear to be higher rates of COVID-19 deaths within the African American community relative to their representation in the population, there must be a coordinated effort to collect complete information leading to a response to ensure that the hardest hit racial groups are given sufficient federal support and resources. Unfortunately, given the lack of consistent coordination between the states and the federal government, and the confusion and delays this has caused in states receiving personal protective equipment (PPE) and resources to combat the virus, I am concerned the emerging racial disparities will be exacerbated, resulting in more loss of life in a community that is already ravaged by empirical health and socioeconomic disparities.

 

I therefore request that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) collect and publicly disseminate disaggregated and complete data concerning COVID-19’s impact on racial and ethnic minorities nationwide and the ways in which existing health disparities may compound COVID-19 death rates among these groups. Furthermore, I request that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) publicly clarify how such information is being incorporated into its medical supply distribution practices to ensure that the hardest hit areas, such as communities of color, are receiving COVID-19 testing supplies, PPE, ventilators, and other medical equipment and supplies used in the testing and treatment of COVID-19.

 

During the first week of April, select states began publishing data that demonstrate a clear and persistent pattern: the COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate, and devastating, impact on African American communities nationwide. In Los Angeles County, African Americans make up 9% of the population, but, according to preliminary data, 17 percent of the COVID-19 related deaths.[1] As of April 7, black individuals represented 33 percent of cases in Michigan and 40 percent of deaths, yet only comprise 14 percent of the state’s population.[2] In Wisconsin, specifically Milwaukee County, black individuals comprise 70 percent of all COVID-19 deaths, despite being 27 percent of the population. Similarly, in Louisiana, where the black population represents approximately 32 percent of the overall population, black people account for 70 percent of deaths.[3] This preliminary data makes clear that African Americans face higher risks for contracting, and dying from, COVID-19.

 

Our local, state, and federal efforts to combat this pandemic cannot effectively address the coronavirus’ disproportionate impacts on communities of color without incorporating comprehensive demographic data into government response strategies, including FEMA’s medical supply distribution operation. On Wednesday, April 8th, the CDC provided some limited demographic data on COVID-19, but that data was reportedly pulled from a small sample size during a limited time frame – only 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.[4] According to the CDC, even though the racial breakdown from the population in its limited report was 59% white, 14% Latino, and 18% African American, an alarming 33% of hospitalized coronavirus patients were African American, giving credence to emerging reports from around the country indicating black populations may be uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. It is imperative that HHS gather complete and comprehensive data and analysis, and such findings must be incorporated into FEMA’s medical supply distribution decision making process to ensure medical supplies are allocated in a manner that accounts for the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans and other racial minorities.

 

At present it is unclear, due to a lack of transparency by FEMA, and a lack of a coordinated strategy between the Administration and the states, whether demographic data on COVID-19 is being properly used in the allocation of medical supplies.  Specifically, the public has little clarity as to how FEMA decides where and when to distribute supplies. During an April 2 briefing, Trump administration senior adviser Jared Kushner stated that “the notion of the federal [medical supply] stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile, it’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”[5] In response, states escalated efforts to procure their own medical supplies, but the federal government has reportedly interfered with this process. For instance, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer stated that her state’s shipments of medical supplies have been “canceled” or “delayed”, which followed up earlier comments in which Gov. Whitmer said that the federal government has been told not to send medical supplies to Michigan.[6] Similarly, the head of the board for the Kentucky Hospital Association stated that four shipments of protective gear were taken “by FEMA before they could be delivered to hospitals that had originally contracted for the supplies.”[7] It appears that the federal government is both telling states they are responsible for obtaining their own medical supplies, while simultaneously commandeering such supplies when states adhere to this federal directive. This is a contradictory dichotomy, and it provides further evidence that greater transparency is required if local and state governments are to be sure that FEMA’s supply distribution process operates with the organization and efficiency needed to protect populations at severe risk for COVID-19-related illness and death. Instead, there remains confusion as to how and when FEMA decides to acquire and distribute medical supplies. Without clarity from the agency, the public is left to fear that medical supplies are being distributed inequitably and without regard to the areas with the greatest need, including those with high populations of racial and ethnic minorities.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a litany of bureaucratic and logistical conflicts, perhaps none greater than how best to expeditiously and equitably distribute supplies. While I recognize the enormity of the task before HHS and FEMA, I ask that both agencies recognize that their collective missions to support communities severely impacted by COVID-19 necessitates: 1) the public dissemination of COVID-19 data as it relates to race and ethnicity; and 2) the proper incorporation of that data into supply line distribution decisions to ensure FEMA’s compliance with its own mission, which the agency stated was a “distribution strategy…designed to ensure that hard-hit areas could get needed supplies.”[8] If HHS does not collect and disseminate data concerning the racial and ethnic impacts of COVID-19, and if FEMA does not incorporate such data into its own decision making process, then the federal government is implementing a set of policies which, collectively, will exacerbate the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.

 

Therefore, I request that you provide the following information, both to Congress as well as the general public:

 

1.     The comprehensive demographic data on the racial and ethnic characteristics of those treated, tested, and demonstrating symptoms for COVID-19, as collected by HHS, especially the CDC. The reporting of such nationalized data is ordinarily customary,[9] but the CDC is failing to adhere to such customs; and

2.     A complete and comprehensive explanation as to how FEMA has incorporated any and all data collected by HHS pursuant to request (1) into its medical supply distribution operation.

 

I thank you in advance for your attention to my concerns, and I look forward to your response.

 

                                                                       

Sincerely,

 

 

Maxine Waters

Member of Congress

 

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