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Data scientists expose COVID racial disparities : Shots - Health News

the Black Equity Coalition
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Inequality Across Gender and Race
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   Negativity   60.11%
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As the deadly virus emerged, data analysts from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, foundation directors, epidemiologists and others pooled their talents to configure databases from unwieldy state data to chart COVID-19 cases.Their work documented yet another life-threatening disparity between white and Black Pittsburgh: People of color were at higher risk of catching the deadly virus and at higher risk of severe disease and death from that infection.We came together because we were concerned about saving lives.Tiffany Gary-Webb, associate dean for diversity and inclusion, University of PittsburghMore than 100 weeks after advocates began pinging and ringing one another to warn of the virus's spread, these volunteers have become the backbone of the Black Equity Coalition, a grassroots collaboration that scrapes government data and shares community health intel.About a dozen members of its data team of 60 meet twice weekly to study hospitalization rates and employment statistics. "It evolved, with us realizing we can do more than address COVID."COVID-19 ravaged communities across the United States — as of the first week of December, more than 787,000 Americans have died, including Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of state and a decorated Army general — and laid bare how marginalized populations lose out in the scrum for public health dollars.Months before the pandemic even began, the Rev. Ricky Burgess led the Pittsburgh City Council to declare racism a public health crisis."Institutional racism is for real," the councilman says. "But without that data, we couldn't target our attention and know who needed the help most."Within days, volunteers were on daylong rounds of video calls and appealing to county and state bureaucrats for more race-based statistics to bolster their research.Fred Brown, president of the nonprofit Forbes Funds, and Mark Lewis, who heads the nonprofit Poise Foundation, were stalwarts of a "huddle," a core of longtime advocates who eventually founded the coalition.Brown emphasized pulling labor statistics to show that the essential workers who were keeping the city running — among them nursing homes aides and home care staff — were overwhelmingly Black or Latino.Mapping the locations of COVID-19 testing centers and analyzing that data has proved sobering, he says. So, the data analysts began layering additional census, labor and ZIP code data to identify neighborhoods, even streets, at risk.The ZIP code data took months to shake loose from state databases, largely because government software was slow in the fast-moving pandemic and because government data was not updated regularly or formatted in ways that would allow it to be easily shared.Their efforts paid off: The group was able to winnow down Allegheny County records that omit race to only 12% of positive cases of COVID-19; 37% of statewide records are missing race details, the coalition reported.Robert Gradeck, who manages the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, a nonprofit data collaborative managed by the University of Pittsburgh, says the experience garnered in this pandemic should play a lasting role in improving the gathering and reporting of public health data. Last month, Gainey was elected the city's first Black mayor, after winning a primary that pointed to inequities in health care and policing.A Democrat who worked for two Pittsburgh mayors, Gainey admits he and other Black elected officials were somewhat ill-equipped in the first weeks of the pandemic."I fought hard to get the vaccine into the community last year, but I really didn't know the language — the health language — to be able to get it," Gainey says.Vaccinations have risen because of community efforts, he said, but children are still a source of worry. Among the grant's goals are better demographic messaging and data analysis on COVID-19 testing and education outreach in dozens of counties.Gary-Webb counts herself among a group of "boomerang" Pittsburghers who, after living in other places — in her case, Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia — have come home to recalibrate how Black residents of their city can participate in public health.

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