Data Science Shows What Pittsburgh’s Black Leaders Know: Racial Disparities Combine Covid Risk

dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News


The ferocity of the covid-19 pandemic did what Black Pittsburgh — communities that make up a quarter of the city’s population — thought impossible. It shaken the norms.

Black Researchers, medical professionals, and others knew that people of color experienced bias in public policy, even before the advent of covid. Data analysts from Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh, epidemiologists, foundation directors and other experts pooled their skills to create databases from state data in order to chart covid cases.

Their research revealed yet another difference in life-threatening health risks between Black and White Pittsburgh. People of color were more likely to contract the deadly virus, and had a higher chance of suffering severe illness and death.

More than 100 weeks after advocates began pinging and ringing one another to warn of the virus’ spread, these volunteers are 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. Social media advisors made health equity a buzzy online initiative with videos and weekly Facebook towns halls to promote vaccinations. Volunteers are asked to complete surveys at pop up clinics sponsored by other groups at hair salons and barbershops. It is also available to elected lawmakers.

” We came together because were concerned about saving people’s lives,” Tiffany Gary-Webb (associate dean for diversity & inclusion at the University of Pittsburgh), who manages the data effort, said. It evolved as we realized that we can do more than just address covid .

Advocates within the Black Equity Coalition — a grassroots collaboration of volunteers, community leaders, and data analysts — gather to discuss their ongoing mission to uncover the life-threatening disparities between white and Black Pittsburgh. (Left to right) Karen Abrams, Tiffany Gary-Webb, Fred Brown and Mark Lewis(Martha Rial for KHN)

Covid ravaged communities across the United States — 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 and specific populations were left vulnerable.

Months prior to the pandemic, the Rev. Ricky Burgess was the leader of the Pittsburgh City Council declaring racism a public health emergency.

“Institutional Racism is real, the councilman stated in a recent interview. “You’re talking about generational disproportional investments and generational disproportional treatment. It impacts everything .”


The covid pandemic demonstrated how structural inequities can be missed or ignored Burgess stated.

” I’ve lost many friends, family members, and a lot church members. My son was a victim of covid. He said that covid was personal to him. “I knew it would have an disproportionate impact .”

,” he said.

In 2020, covid reduced overall U.S. life expectancy by 1.5 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Black and Hispanic people fared the worst, losing more than three years in life expectancy. Whites saw a drop of 1.2 years.

Using county data, the Black Equity researchers found a sobering racial gap in the Pittsburgh area: Black residents of Allegheny County saw disproportionate hospitalization rates — and were more likely to land in the ICU or on a ventilator — in the pandemic. Weekly hospitalization rates were higher during surges of infection in April, July and December 2020 and again in March and October 2021. Deaths, too, were disproportionate but fluctuated after December 2020.

During the pandemic, deaths were much higher among African Americans than other racial groups.

‘It’s All a Shade of Bad’

Kellie ware has always considered health inequity to be a fatal problem. After graduating from Pittsburgh’s public schools, she went to Boston for law school. She was also working as an equity and diversity policy analyst in the office of her local mayor, just months before covid became a global problem.

Ware was at her desk in late 2019 when her phone started ringing. The city’s gender commission and university sociologists compiled a damning report that again highlighted glaring inequalities.

The blandly titled report, “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race,” jolted emotions in the city of 303,000 people — and underscored how health disparities track with income.

Among the findings were that Black Pittsburgh residents earned less than their white counterparts and are more likely to die from diseases. For every dollar white men earned, the report found, Black women earned 54 cents, making them five times as likely to live in poverty as white men.

Black Pittsburghers had a significantly lower life expectancy than those of white Pittsburghers due to their higher rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The report caused a stir, but Ware reacted with a perspective that he had gained over many years from the former steel town. Ware stated that the report was true, but he knew this: There aren’t many places where it’s great for a Black woman to live. What are those earnings? It’s 54 cents to a dollar for women in Pittsburgh. It’s 68 cents nationally. It’s all bad .”

Ware and other people were the first to feel the effects of the pandemic. As covid devastated New York in March 2020, Karen Abrams, a program officer at the Heinz Endowments, a foundation in Pittsburgh that spends $70 million a year on community programs, began connecting the dots in texts and calls with nonprofits, business owners and university researchers.

Covid quickly spread in dense multi-generational families and in Black neighborhoods of Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington. Abrams was one of the advocates in Pennsylvania who watched as state and county health systems raced to prepare, and who feared that Black residents might be neglected.

Early in the pandemic in Philadelphia, volunteers in mobile units distributed protective equipment and covid test kits to Black neighborhoods. Abrams asked her tech-minded friends to document the covid infection in Pittsburgh. She said that she intuitively knew what was going on. “But, without this data, we couldn’t focus our attention on who most needed it .”

Volunteers were engaged in day-long video calls with state and county bureaucrats, appealing for more data on race to support their research.

Fred Brown (president of the non-profit Forbes Funds) and Mark Lewis (head of the Poise Foundation) were staunch members of a “huddle,” which was a group of longtime advocates that eventually created the coalition.

Brown stressed the importance of pulling labor statistics in order to show that the vital workers keeping the city going — including home care staff and nursing home aides — were predominantly Black or Latino.

He said that the results of testing covids and analysing data were sobering. The most likely people to be tested were found to live in Pittsburgh’s predominantly white neighborhoods. They were mainly employed in finance, tech, and academia, so they could adapt easily to lockdowns. They could access internet 24/7 at home, and food delivery was possible to reduce the risk of infection. They were able to access vaccines faster later.

” The most tested communities were those with the highest incomes,” Brown stated. The most resilient were those who had to get out and do work .

Lewis is a certified public accountant and corporate auditor who focuses on standards. He said that while county and state health officials worked hard to stop the spread of covid, they didn’t always collect data to ensure fair distribution. Lewis stated that they realized that the testing had not been done by race, and therefore, no race data was being collected. “Why? The issue was that .”

was not required to be collected at both the state and local levels.

Gary Webb stated that researchers were able to see where inequities might be because they had lived in the same neighborhoods. To help health officials decide where to increase testing, they first added data about the location of federally qualified health centres and Black families living in poverty.

University researchers and non-profit researchers discovered anomalies while they worked. One example of this was the identification of race on testing data. Patients were either identified as Black, White, or Unknown. These “unknowns”, however, were a large percentage. Researchers began layering additional data from census, labor, and ZIP codes to identify areas at risk.

It took several months for ZIP code data to be retrieved from state databases. This was due to slow government software and the inability of government data to be updated or formatted in a way that could easily be shared.

Their efforts paid off: The group was able to winnow down Allegheny County records that omit race to 12% of positive covid cases; 37% of statewide records are missing race details, the coalition reported.

Robert Gradeck is the director of the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. This data collaborative is managed by the University of Pittsburgh. He believes covid should have a long-lasting impact on improving public health reporting. Gradeck stated, “We kept thinking: How can we learn from it?” It’s not that it’s impossible to answer questions. You can only answer a portion .”

Robert Gradeck manages the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, an open-data collaboration nonprofit and one of the Black Equity Coalition’s early allies. (Martha Rial for KHN)

Among the top recommendations to health authorities: adopt software practices to ensure that race and other demographic data must be entered into electronic records. Then refine the sharing of data between counties, states and research institutions, as well as how they are shared with the public.

The coalition was supported in monthly calls with Rachel Levine, state Health Secretary, who was recently sworn-in as a four star admiral in charge U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps which responds to federal health crises.

” I thought what they did is critically important,” Levine stated, noting that officials had recognized the value of the research by the coalition as revelatory. They were able to collect and use data in an efficient way .”

thanks to a diverse group of professionals.

Early research revealed that the covid rate in Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh) was three times higher than the rate for whites. Hospitalizations among Black people have been as high as seven times the rate of whites, according to “Missing Our Shot,” the coalition’s 2021 report.

A Vaccine Clinic Campaign Stop

Ed Gainey was a Pittsburgh state legislator who said that covid protections were not being provided to African Americans. After winning the primary within months of George Floyd’s murder, Gainey was elected as the first Black mayor of the city. This election highlighted inequalities in police and health care.

Gainey, a Democrat who served two Pittsburgh mayors in his time, admits that he and other Black elected officials were not well-prepared during the pandemic.

” I worked hard to get the vaccine in the community last year but I didn’t really know the language — or the health language — to obtain it,” Gainey stated during a visit to a clinic that offers vaccines.

Vaccinations are now more common due to community efforts, but children remain a concern. Gainey, who was raised in a low income housing community, admitted that he can understand why some children shrug off questions about covid risk. But I can tell you this: If you can convince a child that Santa Claus exists, then you can convince them to believe in the vaccine. You know what? I can understand the reluctance of some young children. He said that he didn’t grow to go to the doctor as a child. “I grew up in the same environment .”

As the 2019 report made clear, many of the benefits of Pittsburgh’s tech-based economy — a vaunted “ed-and-meds” renewal against the industrial decline of the 1980s — still was largely bypassing African Americans.

The first year of covid was a iterative process to try and stay ahead of the virus. Gary-Webb, a doctorate holder from Johns Hopkins’ school of public health, stated that it was also an opportunity for Black residents to share what they know and see in their communities.

The coalition was sustained by thousands volunteer hours. It attracted funding this year, particularly for outreach and for the cost of running databanks. The Poise Foundation received a $6 million grant last month. 99 million grant, federal money to be administered by the state health department to support an array of health partnerships in the region and, notably, to improve covid vaccine uptake in ZIP code areas the Black Equity Coalition identified as vulnerable. Its goals include demographic messaging, data analysis and outreach to schools in many counties.

Gary Webb considers herself to be one of a small group of “boomerangs” from Pittsburgh who have lived elsewhere — in her case Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia. Covid has helped them calibrate how Black residents can take part in public health.

She said that the health planners were asking for help in getting the message out. We replied, “No, we’re not just getting the message out.” We want to talk about equity .’”

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