The numbers lie

State officials manipulate COVID-19 data about minorities.

The claim that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color is often heard and rarely, if ever, disputed. It is one in many instances where politicians and activists identify “white privilege” and use that concept as a basis for policy.

Here in Minnesota, it has been widely reported that minorities, and especially blacks, have suffered from COVID to an extent several times greater than whites. This claim, frequently repeated and never questioned in the press, has been the basis for potentially discriminatory actions by the Walz administration. But is the assertion of disproportionate impact true?

In December 2020, a group of sociologists and others at the University of Minnesota produced a study that gave initial impetus to the idea that COVID devastated minority communities. Its sensational conclusion was that black Minnesotans died from COVID at a rate more than five times that of white Minnesotans, while latinos in Minnesota died from COVID at a rate more than four times that of whites, when adjusted for age.

This startling conclusion garnered considerable publicity, all of it uncritical. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota donated $5 million to the University of Minnesota to establish a Center for Antiracism Research and Health Equity. In announcing this grant, the university’s press release said, “During the pandemic, Black Minnesotans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate five times higher than white Minnesotans when adjusted for age.”

Mpls. St. Paul Magazine wrote, linking to the sociologists’ study:

[E]xcess mortality — “COVID-19 mortality alongside deaths indirectly attributable to the pandemic” — has been higher for people of color, at a rate estimated to be around five times more for Black people in Minnesota than white folks…

Can that claim possibly be true? The sociologists’ study itself acknowledged obvious facts to the contrary:

Non-Hispanic white Minnesotans account for about 80 percent of the state’s population and about 82 percent of its COVID-19 deaths. This seeming lack of disparity may be surprising, especially at a time when Minnesota has received national attention for its deep racial divide following the police killing of George Floyd.

So if whites represented 80 percent of Minnesotans and 82 percent of COVID deaths, as of the date of the study, how was COVID killing blacks and latinos at levels several times greater than whites?

The authors of the University of Minnesota study did not base their analysis on death certificates that cite COVID as a cause of death, the normal measure of COVID mortality. Rather, they looked at total death statistics for the various racial groups. They counted total mortality from all causes, excluding only homicide, suicide and accident, for the months March through October of 2020, and compared those numbers with the average total mortality for each racial group in the years 2017 through 2019.

These authors justified using total mortality data, rather than the Minnesota Department of Health’s COVID statistics, on the assumption that members of minority groups who died of COVID were less likely than whites to be diagnosed with that disease. What evidence did the authors offer for that proposition? None. It was sheer speculation. Moreover, in 2020, 10.8 percent of all white deaths were attributed to COVID in the Department of Health’s database, while 13.8 percent of black deaths were so attributed.

This fact suggests that there is no merit to the theory that minority COVID deaths were somehow under-recorded. And that is only the beginning of the problems with the sociologists’ report.

Using the average of raw mortality numbers for 2017 through 2019 as a baseline for comparison with 2020 numbers sounds plausible, but it is a statistical trick that introduces a major error into the study. Minnesota’s black population has been both increasing and aging at a faster rate than the white population. As a result, raw numbers of black deaths have been increasing much faster than white deaths, which were virtually flat for the period 2017 through 2019.

Specifically, during this three-year period, black deaths in Minnesota increased by 13 percent, while white deaths increased by only 1.9 percent. If those rates of increase in mortality are projected into 2020, and that number is used as a baseline against which to compare actual mortality, nearly one-third of the alleged increase in black mortality in 2020 — all of which the authors attribute to COVID — disappears. This is a good example of a statistical device that seems innocent, but badly biases a study’s results.

The second source for the claim that minorities in Minnesota have been disproportionately impacted by COVID is the Department of Health itself. The MDH website aggressively promotes a racial angle to the state’s COVID experience:

COVID-19 is exposing what has always been true: racism is pervasive and persistent. … We know that communities of color and Indigenous communities don’t need data to verify their experience. The purpose of this dashboard is to educate and spark community leaders, nonprofits, foundations, governments, and corporations to work together to reduce and eliminate systemic barriers so communities of color and Indigenous communities can recover with dignity and resiliency.

The Department of Health evidently views its COVID statistics as an instrument of activism, but the data themselves belie the Department’s racial interpretation, particularly with respect to mortality. The Department’s own numbers show that whites and Native Americans, not blacks, Hispanics or Asians, are overrepresented as COVID victims.

As of June 3, the MDH dashboard shows that 6,188 whites have died from COVID, representing 0.139 percent of the white population. Among “Latinx,” the totals are 81 deaths, or 0.072 percent of that population. Among blacks, the numbers are 368 deaths or 0.100 percent of the black population. As for Asians, 288 have died with COVID listed on their death certificates, representing 0.101 percent of Minnesota’s Asian population. And finally, 101 Native Americans have died from or with COVID, or 0.169 percent of that population.

In other words, MDH’s own records indicate that Native Americans and whites have disproportionately died from COVID, with blacks, Hispanics and Asians dying at lesser rates. In particular, whites, 80 percent of Minnesota’s population, are now over-represented with 88 percent of COVID deaths.

There is no mystery as to why this is true. Minnesota’s white population skews older than most minority populations, and COVID is overwhelmingly a disease that is dangerous to the elderly, especially those who are already sick. This basic demographic fact explains why COVID has impacted white Minnesotans to a greater extent than minority groups whose populations are, on the average, younger.

The data compiled by MDH obviously don’t support the “racism” narrative favored by the Walz administration, so the Department of Health has promoted “age adjusted” COVID death calculations. On an “age adjusted” basis, MDH claims that all of the minority groups have higher COVID death rates than whites, with blacks at a ratio of about two and one-half to one.

This “age adjustment” creates a hypothetical number of blacks (for example) who would have died if the age distribution of the black population were the same as the age distribution of the white population — according to the Department’s statistical methods — but who did not, in fact, die. “Age adjusted” fatality numbers represent, at best, a contrary-to-fact hypothetical, and are not a competent basis on which to ground public policy.

Despite the obvious flaws in the methods used both by university sociologists and the state Department of Health, and despite the undeniable fact that Minnesota’s whites have died from COVID at a rate greater than their share of the population, the press has uncritically parroted these groups’ claims of racial disparity.

Worse, the Walz administration has apparently relied on claims of disparate impact in crafting its response to the epidemic. In particular, the administration may have engaged in race discrimination in the distribution of anti-COVID vaccines. Although its language is vague, an MDH guideline issued on March 3, 2021, describes “belonging to a community of color” as a risk factor that should be considered in prioritizing vaccine availability, and tells of a “vaccine distribution and engagement approach that prioritizes disproportionately impacted communities, settings and populations.”

The Walz administration has also prioritized sending vaccines to Federally Qualified Health Centers, as well as exempting those groups from the administration’s 72-hour distribution goal, because they “are vaccinating community members from Black, Indigenous and Communities of Color at significantly higher rates than other sites.”

Further, someone who uses the MDH website to sign up to be vaccinated is asked questions about race, gender, and sexual orientation, but is not asked about real risk factors, like obesity, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. How this information is used has not been publicly disclosed.

If the Walz administration did engage in race discrimination in distributing the vaccine, it was, in all likelihood, illegal — a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. In a recent case, Greer’s Ranch Cafe v. Isabella Casillas Guzman, the Court held that allegations of COVID disproportionately impacting women and minorities cannot justify race and sex discrimination in administering a government program.

Race is not a risk factor for COVID. Apart from random variation, the reason for modest differences in COVID mortality among various groups is that the actual risk factors for the disease — age, of course, but also obesity, diabetes, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and so on — are not uniformly distributed through the population. The Walz administration’s misguided obsession with race is one reason why it performed poorly at publicizing the real COVID risk factors and taking practical actions to protect the most vulnerable Minnesotans.

John Hinderaker is President of Center of the American Experiment, and is well-known nationally as an internet, radio and television commentator.

Mitch Rolling is a Policy Analyst at Center of the American Experiment on energy and environmental issues, and is an expert on statistical analysis.