Black Equity Coalition Deploys Data to Reduce COVID-19’s Impact on the Black Community in Allegheny County

Author: Kathy Pettit and Bob Gradeck
Date Posted: May 27, 2021

Harnessing interdisciplinary expertise and perspectives, the Black Equity Coalition (BEC) in Pittsburgh successfully used data to advocate for programs and policies to decrease racial disparities in COVID-19 response and created a forum to tackle other health inequities. The group of predominantly Black leaders formed the BEC in spring 2020 to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic's disparate impact on Allegheny County's Black community. It included funders, epidemiologists, social scientists, government officials, public health professionals, and health care practitioners.

The Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC), the Pittsburgh-based NNIP Partner, serves on the BEC Data Committee, along with BEC members and other local data and technology organizations. Building on several years of work, the WPRDC had a critical role as a connector, strengthening the data ecosystem and recruiting other people to join the committee. The 20 active members have been meeting twice a week for more than a year to exchange information and address the community’s data access and advocacy needs.

Early in the pandemic, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Allegheny County Health Department were not releasing testing and case data by race, but pressure and support from BEC members and the data committee resulted in these data being publicly released, first as a dashboard and later as open data, along with a guide to help people understand the data on WPRDC’s open data portal. The BEC Data Committee also urged agencies to report data by race and ethnicity, creating its own dashboard focused on monitoring disparities over time. The committee internally analyzed data to guide outreach to the specific health providers driving the high shares of missing race and ethnicity information, particularly for testing. Allegheny County now prioritizes asking about race in case investigations and uses data from its integrated data system to improve the quality of testing and case data, while maintaining confidentiality for individuals. As of March 2021, only 12 percent of positive COVID-19 case records in Allegheny County omit race, much below the 37 percent statewide. According to Dr. Tiffany Gary-Webb, a member of the BEC leadership group and data committee, “Seeing something happen right away was extremely different from the past—that we saw a problem, advocated for things to be fixed, and got it changed."

The BEC also influenced the accessibility of COVID-19 testing for Black residents. The two major health plans initially opened testing sites outside of the city, far from the city’s Black neighborhoods. WPRDC and data committee partners compiled data on Black population distribution in relation to locations of testing sites and federally qualified health centers (FHQCs). Based on this proposal, the county health department and some local health insurance providers began providing COVID-19 testing at the FQHCs and in other accessible community locations. Per capita testing rates among Black residents exceeded rates among white residents since the strategy's implementation. As of March 2021, 35 percent of Black Allegheny County residents received a COVID-19 test, compared with 27 percent of white residents.

In addition, BEC members used information from the data committee to reach thousands of people through outreach campaigns and media outlets, including "What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know"; YouTube videos and Facebook Live broadcasts organized by 1Hood Media; Black Women, Wise Women; and UrbanKind Institute. The current campaign is "Share Your Vaccine Story", a series of short videos in which community members share their emotions, experiences, and decisionmaking processes regarding receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Since last summer, the racial gap in COVID-19 infections has been closing. The ratio of Black to white COVID-19 cases in the county fell from 3:1 in July 2020 to 3:2 by January 2021.

Through the BEC Data Committee, local data and technology organizations collaboratively leveraged their expertise, relationships, and infrastructure to support Black-led efforts to advance racial equity. Regular convenings built trust among the participants and created shared understanding from data. The committee addressed bias and quality issues in the data systems, made data widely accessible, and helped to improve access for Black residents to testing. Dr. Gary-Webb believes the BEC and its data efforts are changing the culture around equity and social change in the Pittsburgh area, shifting power to Black leaders with the support of white allies. This year, the BEC added vaccination equity in their report, Missing Our Shot, to its agenda, and it will continue to advocate for community oriented, primary and preventive health care to meet the health needs of communities of color.

In May 2021, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) conferred the G. Thomas Kingsley Impact Award to the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center for their support of the Black Equity Coalition. This award recognizes an NNIP partner organization that has demonstrated impact using data to improve local policy and practice to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods. NNIP is a learning network, coordinated by the Urban Institute, that connects independent partner organizations in more than 30 cities. The Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center is the partner organization for Pittsburgh.

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