New Jersey needs better racial data if we’re to have an equitable COVID-19 recovery | Opinion

Posted Dec 18, 2020

By Tiara Moultrie

This April, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation requiring hospitals to report racial and other demographic data on COVID-19 outcomes to the Department of Health. However, this mandate is not being fulfilled, says Tiara Moultrie, a policy associate at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.


New Jersey – along with the entire country and much of the world – is nearly a year into a global pandemic that has caused immeasurable suffering and massive death. There is no one whose life has not been fundamentally altered in some way.

And while there is still a lot we are learning about this virus, one thing we continue to see consistently is that COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity destroyer.

In New Jersey (and elsewhere), Black people and other communities of color have been disproportionately ravaged by this pandemic, and on a large scale. The uneven effects of the virus on communities of color results in part from pre-existing health conditions and the lack of healthcare, as well as overrepresentation in essential jobs and close living quarters that don’t permit for social distancing. Once people in these communities become ill, the same lack of adequate healthcare makes it more difficult to recover.

In addition to disproportionate rates of hospitalization and death, Black people and other communities of color are dealt additional blows related to underlying wealth and structural disparities. In many places, including New Jersey, adult and youth prisons are overwhelmingly filled with Black people living in close quarters who are unable to properly protect themselves from the virus. Many low-income kids of color engaging in distance learning don’t have laptops or reliable Internet access, causing them to fall behind. And those who have lost their jobs often have little to no savings to fall back on, causing vulnerability to eviction and homelessness.

It’s like we are in a tragic loop where underlying racial disparities in areas like wealth, education, criminal justice and health cause disparities in the impact of the pandemic, which can then result in deeper underlying racial disparities. In other words, under stress, the cracks of structural racism in our foundation are erupting into earthquakes in communities of color — leaving behind an even weaker foundation.

Given that the racial wealth gap in New Jersey is one of the largest in the nation with a median net worth for white families of $352,000, but just $7,300 and $6,100 for Latina/Latino and Black families, respectively, the idea of worsening inequality is almost incomprehensible — but unchecked, it could happen.

So, what do we need to do now to ameliorate this tragedy and build systems to prevent it from recurring in times of future crises — to finally strengthen our foundation?

Our toolbox must include two key items: community and data. At the Institute, we believe that structural change happens from the ground up in our communities — on our blocks, in our municipalities, then up to our counties, the state and federal levels.

Recovering from this pandemic will be no exception. Communities must advocate for what they need.

In order to do that, we need reliable local-level demographic data telling us who exactly is getting sick and losing their lives, livelihoods and more — and exactly where so that communities of color can receive tailored support and resources through the duration of the crisis and after it has passed.

In April 2020, after collective advocacy in our communities, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation requiring hospitals throughout the state to report racial and other demographic data on COVID-19 outcomes to the Department of Health. The legislation further mandates that the reported statewide data be compiled by county and municipality and published online. However, this mandate is not being fulfilled.

Currently, the only county-level data available on the New Jersey Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard that includes race and ethnicity information is COVID-19 confirmed positive cases and hospital discharges. Furthermore, the only municipal level information reported on the data dashboard is the number of positive cases per 100,000 in zip codes with populations greater than 20,000. Conspicuously missing is municipal-level demographic data on hospitalizations and mortalities.

The purported reasons for inadequate compliance with reporting mandates are unclear. But without this crucial data, we cannot monitor the short- and long-term consequences of the crisis in our state, contain the virus and build an equitable recovery. Immediate action is necessary as we begin a winter that will drive people indoors and increase their risk of exposure.

We know this can be done. While municipal data remains elusive on the state database, cities like Paterson and Newark have maintained their own robust COVID-19 dashboards which include the racial demographic information necessary to create informed policy solutions. The state should provide more of this type of municipal data information, along with the creation of stringent and consistent standards for how hospitals collect and communicate demographic data and how it gets reported out.

None of this is easy. But in order to make Black lives really matter in New Jersey, it is essential to have the necessary data from which to build a sustainable recovery.

You can help by letting the Department of Health know New Jersey needs this information.

Tiara Moultrie is a policy associate at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-12-19 03:37:38 -0800