Pennsylvania is the 1st state to collect COVID-19 LGBTQ data

Pennsylvania Tom Wolf

Governor Tom Wolf speaks during a March 13 press conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, left, and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, stand behind Wolf. Photo: The Office of Gov. Tom Wolf and the office’s Flickr account.

Pennsylvania has become the first state in the union to require that sexual orientation and gender identity demographic data be collected in COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

It’s unclear how COVID-19 has affected LGBTQ people’s health because data on the subject doesn’t exist.

COVID-19 data collected for other groups has revealed various health disparities in Black and Latino communities, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and various underlying health conditions in those communities make them more susceptible to the virus.

COVID-19 health disparities

Health experts have said that they would expect to find similar COVID-19 related disparities between sexual and gender minorities and their straight, cisgender peers. For example, LGBTQ people experience of discrimination in health care settings and are more likely to have underlying health conditions such as chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and HIV, according to a report from Fenway Health.

As a result, these factors make LGBTQ people particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, but nobody knows to what extent because the data is not collected.

Pennsylvania collects data

That’s why Pennsylvania taking the lead on gathering this vital scientific data is significant and will help save lives.

Gov. Tom Wolf said Pennsylvania’s collection will occur in several ways, according to a May 13 press statement.

The Pennsylvania Health Department will work with a new data gathering platform, Sara Alert, and has modified the platform to collect sexual orientation and gender identity data.

The health department has requested that the state’s six health information organizations capture sexual orientation and gender identity or expression data from electronic health records that can then be used by healthcare providers to report their COVID-19 data to the department.

During the state’s response to COVID-19, the Wolf Administration will only partner with organizations and entities that “have an established commitment to non-discriminatory practices,” the statement said.

Wolf made his decision to collect LGBTQ data after community leaders suggested the practice to a state health disparity task force that was launched in April.

It’s worth noting that Rachel Levin, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health,  is the highest ranking health official in the U.S. who publicly identifies as transgender.

California SB 932

California could have been the first state to collect COVID-19 LGBTQ data, but has failed to take action.

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) sent a letter in early April to Gov. Gavin Newsom, asking him to instruct county health agencies to collect LGBTQ data on COVID-19.

When Newsom ignored the request, Wiener authored SB 932 bill.

Newsom has been questioned several times at press conferences about when he hasn’t taken any action to have the data collected. Newsom has stumbled and avoided answering the question. 

Mayor ignores LGBTQ community

A similar situation has taken place in Long Beach. Mayor Robert Garcia, who identifies as gay, also has refused to help the LGBTQ community and ask the city’s health department to collect the data. In essence, Garcia and the health department have pushed the community back into the closet.

LGBTQ leaders are upset at Garcia’s lack of leadership.

“While the mayor has no official authority at the health department, he does have a position of leadership and influence that he should be using,” said Porter Gilberg, executive director at the Long Beach LGBTQ Center. “It would be really meaningful if he would advocate for LGBTQ data collecting at sites across the city.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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