Genesee County, MI— As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Genesee County and across the state, missing race data is also increasing, according to a report by the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions

Between March 28 – April 4, the GCHD reported approximately 1,400 COVID cases. Of those, 847 were an unknown race—about 61%. 

Without data on race, health officials and policymakers cannot accurately identify health and social inequities that put people of color at an increased for getting sick and dying from COVID. 

“We need to know how this virus is affecting different communities and race data is a huge part of that to know what specific communities it’s affecting, and what resources those communities need now and also moving forward,” Kayleigh Blaney, deputy health officer for the Genesee County Health Department, said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Black and other minority communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people are 1.1 times more likely to contract COVID and 2.9 times more likely to be hospitalized. 

But in Flint, thanks to grassroots efforts by community leaders and local health officials, those disparities had been eliminated in Jan. 2021.

Rick Sadler, a geographer and assistant professor at the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University who has been mapping COVID cases across Genesee County by zip code, said missing data has always been an issue, though to a lesser degree. 

“When we said that we’d eliminated the disparity, we still had this issue with missing race data, particularly during spikes,” he said. 

Health authorities are mandated by federal law to collect and report race and ethnicity data for COVID testing. In Michigan, this responsibility falls on local health departments, Blaney said. 

“Typically, race data is not reported with lab results. That’s information that we’re able to get during the process of investigating cases. Some laboratories report race data, some laboratories don’t even collect race data, because that’s not something that a laboratory needs to collect to run a test,” Blaney said. 

The health department is tasked with investigating each case and following up with individuals who often don’t answer their phones. 

“We also understand…. When a lot of people are diagnosed with COVID, or test positive with COVID, they’re sick, they’re not feeling well. The last thing they want to be doing is talking to someone about their infection. But it really is important to us that we’re able, not only to gather race data information, but to be able to provide them education. If there’s resources that they need, help direct them to resources that they need,” Blaney said. 

Sadler said, based on his research, there is a bit of “hope” in that the missing race data is not centralized to a specific region in Genesee County. 

“What we did is we took all of the missing race data, and we mapped it. My GIS analyst made a map so, we have the percent of unknowns by census tracts. And that map is basically randomly distributed. If there was a huge geographic or racial disparity, it would show up in the map,” Sadler said. 

However, the problem is rampant nationwide. According to a study by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, approximately 50% of cases reported between Aug. 28, 2020 and Sept.16, 2020 are still missing racial and ethnic information. 

In Genesee County, case investigators are doing what they can to keep up with the overwhelming workload, Blaney said. 

“The Health Department is being tasked with case investigation, contact, tracing and getting vaccines out. So, there’s a lot of competing interests right now in order to try and keep the community safe….We’re getting to the cases as quickly as we can. But right now, we’re getting upwards of 200 positive cases a day,” she said. 

GCHD encourages residents to answer their phones when the health department calls. “At least give us a chance to try and prevent illnesses in the community,” Blaney said. 

For more information about case rates in Genesee County, visit GCHD’s website.

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...