Though many states are releasing reports that indicate people of color are more likely to get sick or die from the novel coronavirus, it remains unclear whether that scenario is playing out in Oklahoma because the state so far has collected and released incomplete data surrounding the issue.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Thursday evening released a report with the first look at the data, which includes a breakdown of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths by race and ethnicity. However, the data is incomplete and does not include the number of cases accounted for in each group — only percentages.

The report offers a limited glimpse at how COVID-19 is impacting Oklahomans of color. Race and ethnicity are reported as unknown for a significant portion of the accounted for confirmed cases. In 7.5 percent of deaths, the race is unknown and 13.8% of the ethnicities are unknown.

Up until the past week, the health department used a COVID-19 test form with an optional inquiry for race and ethnicity. Less than a quarter of people answered, said Shelley Zumwalt, Oklahoma’s chief of innovation.

The state recently changed its protocol to require nurses to request the information while investigating patients who tested positive for the disease, Zumwalt said in an emailed statement.

The health department did not respond to questions about the data on Thursday evening.

The agency’s limited report indicates that among the cases where race was known, 4.5 percent were black Oklahomans; 5 percent were Hispanic or Latino Oklahomans; and 6.8 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native residents.

As of Thursday, the state reported 80 COVID-related deaths. Though it’s unclear if the report accounts for all of those deaths, it indicates 7.5 percent of deaths were among black Oklahomans and 5 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native Oklahomans.

At a testing site in Norman on Thursday afternoon, Commissioner of Health Gary Cox told reporters the state collects “a great deal of data” and that the state was improving the data collecting process.

“We are expanding that because we want to include racial and ethnic statistics as well so we can share those across the state and see if there are disparities that need to be addressed,” Cox said.

He added: “It’s partially in place now and will be much more complete in days to come.”

Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Gary Cox. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Data on key demographics help epidemiologists, officials, and public health and medical experts identify which communities are most at risk and inform where resources should be allocated. The elderly were identified as a high-risk group early on — states and care facilities have continued to implement policies designed to stop the spread of the disease.

Experts said as data start to emerge, higher mortality rates in communities of color might underscore health disparities black and Hispanic Oklahomans face.

“I think it would just be a further underlining of the issue that we don’t have health equity in our population by race and that we need to work on that upstream,” said Gary Raskob, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Oklahoma, and regents professor of medicine and epidemiology.

Black and Hispanic people have a higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes, all of which could contribute to the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

“I think we collect data on race for most of what we do in public health,” Raskob said. “So they’re collecting data on these cases already, so it’s just an added step to get that, from the point of view of we want to be working towards a situation where something like this doesn’t disproportionately affect one segment of our population.”

A handful of states have regularly tracked race and ethnicity data for COVID-19 deaths and infections. Many others are only beginning to release preliminary data with the demographics.

In Washington, D.C, though black residents make up 45 percent of the population, they accounted for 29 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And in Louisiana, though black residents make up only 32 percent of the state’s population they accounted for more than 70 percent of deaths, according to KFF.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not released data on the ethnicity and race of those who have tested positive or died of COVID-19.

On Wednesday, top physician organizations penned a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services urging the Trump administration to collect, analyze and make available the data.

As of Thursday morning, the state health department reported 1,684 known cases of the disease and 80 deaths. Experts have said with the slow start to establish widespread testing, Oklahoma is likely only capturing a fraction of COVID-19 cases.

As COVID-19 emerged in Oklahoma policy experts were quick to point out that many, and particularly low income Oklahomans, lacked access to health care. The state has the second-highest uninsured rate in the nation, only behind Texas.

In 2018, 12 percent of nonelderly white Oklahomans were uninsured, according to KFF. Meanwhile, 17 percent of black Oklahomans and 25 percent of Hispanic Oklahomans were uninsured. Among American Indians and Alaskan Natives, the rate was at 30 percent.

Communities of color are more likely to encounter barriers to health care and quality housing. They are also more likely to live in poverty or earn less.

If the state wants to stop the spread of COVID-19, it must focus response and prevention efforts on the areas the disease is affecting the most, said Open Justice Director Ryan Gentzler. If the state doesn’t collect and release that data “it’s essentially flying blind,” he said.

“It’s going to continue to compound health disparities and other disparities we see in our state,” Gentzler said.

Gentzler said data integrity must start early with collection, and because only 25 percent of people filled out those key demographics, the state’s data could give the impression certain communities are less impacted — or more impacted — by coronavirus than they actually are.

“I think it shows how unprepared we were as a state for this kind of crisis and how slow we were to adapt to a rapidly changing situation,” he said.

Reporter Ben Felder contributed to this report