Key piece of information missing in local COVID-19 database

HOUSTON – Preston Middleton is a fixture in the entertainment industry and a long time Houston community activist.

“I’m worried,” Middleton said. “I’m very, very concerned.”

He’s concerned many in the community don’t feel the need to be cautious with COVID-19 anymore.

“This is over with, it’s on to the next story," he said. “They may not know someone that got sick or know someone that died, they aren’t taking it seriously.”

“It’s absolutely crucial we get good data"

Data can pinpoint hot-spots, identify vulnerable segments of the population and help municipalities direct resources. But getting a complete picture is tough when some of the data is missing.

So we asked Houston Health Authority, Dr. David Persse, why there are 4,000 positive cases in Harris County that show up as “unknown” race and ethnicity on the county’s COVID-19 dashboard.

“Historically most of that information came from the doctor’s office,” he said.

Nearly 30% of Houston and Harris County’s positive cases are in that “unknown” category. Dr. Persse said some of this comes from how the data is collected at different testing sites.

“It’s not consistent from one testing site to the other,” he said. “And then, in many cases, what we’re getting from the labs is as little as a name and phone number.”

Then, when they try to call those numbers, to get that information, many people won’t answer the call thinking it’s spam.

COVID-19 race and ethnic breakdown

According to city and county data, 30% of positive cases are Hispanic, 19% are African-American, 16% are white and 3% are Asian. Even with incomplete data, researchers say there are early indications as to why some communities are hit harder.

Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn with Baylor College of Medicine says some people in minority, lower-income communities are more susceptible because they can’t afford to miss work, have to rely on mass transit and can’t self-quarantine.

“They don’t have the luxury to go and rent an apartment so they have one room for themselves," Woc-Colburn said.

Dr. Persse said a factor in severity can be whether a person has access to quality health-care or even basic nutrition and that COVID-19 is very good at exploiting chronic illness.

“This virus seems to take advantage of both diabetes and hypertension, and also the other one is obesity,” he said.

When it comes to COVID-19 fatalities in the city of Houston, 34% are African-American, 31% Hispanic, 27% white, and 5% Asian. Of the 131 deaths in Houston, all but seven had underlying health conditions.

In Harris County, though, the breakdown is different, as 34% of the deaths were white, 29% Hispanic, 27% African-American and 7% Asian.