Texas to increase coronavirus testing — and study the virus' impact — in black and Hispanic communities

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Harris County Health Department nurse Harriet Lewis administers a test at a coronavirus testing at Stallworth Stadium in Baytown on March 21, 2020. Reggie Mathalone for The Texas Tribune

The state’s top health agency announced Friday it’s launching a study on the coronavirus’ effect on vulnerable populations in Texas, which will include data on things such as race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, geographic location and employment status.

The same day, a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott confirmed a report from The Dallas Morning News that the state plans to significantly ramp up coronavirus testing next week in areas of the state that are predominantly black and Hispanic.

Both efforts come after lawmakers repeatedly pushed for greater transparency on racial data.

“Texas needs to understand the health impact of COVID-19 on these vulnerable populations to determine which of these factors may be putting some Texans at greater risk,” said Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for Texas Health and Human Services Commission, in an email.

Texas previously struggled to get a complete picture of how the coronavirus was affecting its black and Hispanic communities, despite earlier reports that indicated black Americans are disproportionately likely to get sick or die from the virus.

Mann said the commission is preparing for a preliminary analysis of the study in the fall, with additional monitoring and data collection moving forward.

“Any information we learn through this process that we can immediately apply to protecting Texans, we’ll put to use in whatever way we can, as quickly as we can,” she said.

The commission will begin by examining existing data immediately available by the Department of State Health Services, Medicaid data and human service program data — such as fluctuations in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families applications that may be related to COVID-19.

To address any lags or gaps in data, the repository created for the study will be updated with existing information as it becomes available, Mann said. A follow-up analysis that applies initial study questions to new or expounded data sets will be published once “a more complete data set is available.”

The move by the state agency comes after activists and lawmakers pushed for greater transparency on racial data. State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, wrote a letter to Abbott asking for increased testing in black communities in his district. And state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, sent a letter to Abbott requesting the appointment of an emergency COVID-19 racial disparities task force.