Every lab must submit that data within 24 hours to a state or local health department, which must, in turn, forward it to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stripping off the person’s identity when sending the data to the government.
In announcing the rules, Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services who is in charge of the government’s coronavirus testing response, acknowledged what Democrats, public health experts and civil rights leaders have complained about for months.
Data on who is being tested “are rarely being reported to CDC in usable format,” Giroir said during a conference call with journalists. “It is critical for us to ensure that there is equitable access to testing, especially for underserved minorities. And without the data we are now requiring, there is simply no way to determine that.”
Giroir said the information would help track outbreaks, improve the ability to trace the contacts of infected people and determine where testing supplies are most needed. The data also would help clinicians and public health officials evaluate the effectiveness of approaches to treating the potentially lethal virus, he said.
The administration’s testing chief announced the data requirements on the same day that CDC Director Robert Redfield, testifying before a House committee, apologized for what he called “the inadequacy of our response” in documenting the nation’s disproportionately high rates of coronavirus cases and deaths among black and Hispanic residents.
The new data requirement flows from the Cares Act, a relief package adopted by Congress that President Trump signed into law in late March. It says that laboratories must report the results of tests for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, to HHS and that the department should spell out the details.
Since early spring, when the pandemic’s pronounced effects on black, Hispanic and poor residents became apparent, there has been pressure on the administration to respond. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, both Democrats from Massachusetts, wrote to HHS officials calling for comprehensive demographic data on people who were tested or treated for the virus. In May, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent HHS a letter, signed by hundreds of doctors and public health experts, urging the agency to provide information that would show whether people of color were being discriminated against in testing or treatment.
Kristen Clarke, the group’s president, said Thursday that the new guidance “feels like it’s very, very late. . . . It defies logic that they are only now taking steps to provide guidance on data collection. From Day One of the pandemic, it was clear there were disparities . . . and bias along race and class and privilege.”
However, Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, called the requirements “a good step” and said the data to be collected constitutes “a pretty decent list.”
Becker said that while the virus is a communicable disease that must be reported to the CDC, many drugstores, drive-up testing sites and other nontraditional testing places are not accustomed to collecting such information. He said he was concerned about whether all labs could create systems by the start of August and whether testing sites would provide the patient information.