Lack of Uniform Guidelines on Data Reporting Presents Incomplete COVID-19 Story

Jun 1, 2020

Hawai’i health officials say additional demographic data on COVID-19’s impact in Hawaii is on its way. The state Health Department began providing data a month ago, but critics say the information is incomplete and tells an inaccurate story of the pandemic’s impact on various communities. 

State Epidemiologist Sarah Park says health officials continue to deal with a flood of information about COVID-19.

“We are just as anxious as everyone else to have complete data. The challenge there is making sure the data is complete and clean,” said Park. “If youʻve talked to anyone who’s ever dealt with big data, they’ll tell you that cleaning is a huge part of the process.” 

But things get a little tricky when it comes to data on race and ethnicity. State health authorities collect that information using federal forms provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“And that’s why native Hawaiians is lumped together – Native Hawaiians slash Pacific Islanders,” said Park. “Now, when we get that form, my staff does automatically try to parse out...more of the secondary level, the cultural background. So Filipino vs. Koreans, Japanese or Chinese.” 

Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. But she said until now, officials havenʻt had time to take that second pass at the data.

“In the heat of the outbreak, the reality is that oftentimes our investigators are just going to collect what they need because the focus is contact tracing, trying to identify people who may have been exposed and making sure theyʻre in quarantine,” said Park. “And so things like race, sort of are not prioritized.”

Sheri Daniels is the executive director of Papa Ola Lokahi, a group that works to improve the health status of Native Hawaiians.

“What this pandemic has started to highlight very clearly is just how we collect the data, whether it’s the standardization of data collection, but also the picture that data presents,” said Daniels.

Sheʻs teamed up with other leaders in the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community to push for disaggregated data from health officials and other state agencies, breaking out a more detailed picture of the status of the community, including racial and ethnic information. 

“Disaggregation allows communities to really take ownership of their data and tell their story,” said Daniels.

She said a lack of uniform reporting practices at the county, state and federal levels adds to the delay in seeing a full picture of the community's well-being. 

Sylvia Hussey, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said OHA has been working directly with state agencies to collect disaggregated data on health, unemployment, and social services during COVID-19.

“Whether it’s a Pacific Island perspective or a Native Hawaiian, we really need to know the underlying data so that we can understand what effective strategies that we can apply, support and advance in our communities,” said Daniels.