CA follows SF in updating LGBTQ COVID data collection

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday December 21, 2020
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California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly. Photo: Courtesy YouTube
California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly. Photo: Courtesy YouTube

California health officials have now updated their tracking system online to include LGBTQ COVID data. It comes several days after San Francisco began asking COVID-19 test takers what their sexual orientation is in addition to their gender identity.

Monday, December 21, the California Department of Public Health announced that it had moved forward on starting to track the COVID SOGI data. In an advisory to the media, it noted that "as part of its commitment to reduce health inequities and ensure the best outcomes for all Californians, the state has launched a Health Equity Dashboard on that tracks California's health equity measure and data by race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity."

It can be found here and the data shown is a cumulative 30-day total, updated on December 17, 2020, according to a note affixed to the charts. It also clarifies that sexual orientation and gender identity are not collected for tests.

Based on the information posted, the sexual orientation information is missing from 90% of the state's COVID cases and is missing from 93.5% of deaths. It is the opposite in terms of gender identity, with the info missing from 1.6% of cases and from 1.3% of deaths.

The state website also links to a separate page with information on how health departments can better collect the SOGI data that was compiled by the National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center at Boston's Fenway Institute.

Two weeks ago San Francisco officials had informed the Bay Area Reporter they were working with their sponsored testing provider, Color, to expand the data requested at the time of testing or during registration to ask a question about sexual orientation. It makes San Francisco one of the few municipalities in the state to be collecting the SOGI data.

"SOGI data collection has been added to the city's testing site registration through Color lab," Clair Farley, a trans woman who is the director of the Mayor's Office of Transgender Initiatives, informed the Bay Area Reporter December 18.

According to a screen shot Farley sent to the B.A.R., those now signing up to get tested through one of the city's testing sites will be asked: "How do you best describe your sexual orientation or sexual identity?" Options include straight or heterosexual, lesbian, gay, or homosexual, bisexual, questioning, other, or prefer not to say.

A note informs people the CDPH "has requested this information to help understand the impact the virus has across the state." It comes prior to the question people were already being asked about what their gender identity is. The choices include "Trans Female," "Trans Male," or "Genderqueer/Gender Nonbinary."

"We want to thank the COVID Command Center (CCC) and the Color lab for working with us to update the city's testing sites to include vital sexual orientation and gender identity data collection," stated Farley to the B.A.R. "This will help us better track the impact of COVID on our LGBTQ communities and help us to address health inequities."

Law not fully implemented

As the B.A.R. first reported in November, state and most local health officials have not fully implemented a law Governor Gavin Newsom signed in September or regulations instituted in July by Dr. Mark Ghaly, the secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, aimed at asking everyone getting tested for COVID-19 to be asked the SOGI questions.

Last month, Farley had told the B.A.R. it was San Francisco officials' understanding that both the regulations and Senate Bill 932 only mandated reporting SOGI data for positive test results. The city's health department has been ascertaining the sexual orientation of people who test positive for COVID-19 via contact tracing.

A few jurisdictions, such as Monterey County, are asking the SOGI questions of people when they get a COVID-19 test. But most of the state's major metropolitan areas are not, noted gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who authored the bill.

In an interview two weeks ago, Wiener had told the B.A.R. it was "horrifying San Francisco isn't implementing it of all places."

Coincidentally, Wiener had tried to make an appointment Friday afternoon to get tested in early January ahead of returning to Sacramento for the legislative session. Although no test times were available, he noticed that the sexual orientation query had been added to the appointment process.

"When the sexual orientation question popped up, a big smile came over my face," Wiener told the B.A.R.

So far he has not heard of any other cities adding the question to their COVID testing regiments.

Wiener had also told the B.A.R. December 10 that he plans to send a legislative audit request to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in order to examine how state health officials are collecting not only sexual orientation but also gender identity demographic data.

Since 2018, a number of California departments and agencies focused on health care and social services were to be collecting SOGI data after lawmakers enacted several pieces of legislation requiring that they do so.

With the Legislature now on recess until January 11, it will not be until sometime in 2021 that such an audit could be conducted. It was announced December 14 that newly seated gay state Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) will be vice chair of the committee that oversees audits.

"It is not a short-term solution, but it is the one tool we have," said Wiener. "We need to continue to be very loud about this failure. It is not rocket science."

Earlier this month Wiener sent a letter to the state's health department calling on it to direct "all testing sites, regardless of whether they are state-sponsored," to collect the SOGI data and for the agency to begin publishing it. He told the B.A.R. he also plans to bring up the issue with Dr. Tom�s Arag�n, San Francisco's health officer who was recently named by Governor Gavin Newsom as the new director of the California Department of Public Health.

"I have been tested multiple times and I am asked about gender identity and not sexual orientation," noted Wiener.

At the onset of the health crisis in March, the CDPH was not collecting SOGI data among those infected with the coronavirus. For months Wiener and other LGBTQ advocates had called on health leaders to start asking people being tested for the virus if they are members of the LGBTQ community.

Without such information, it is unknown what the impact of the pandemic has been on the state's LGBTQ residents, many of whom have comorbidities that put them at greater risk should they become infected with the coronavirus. Fed up with the lack of action, Wiener authored the bill to require the SOGI data be collected.

In his December 8 letter to Dr. Erica Pan, the acting director of the state heath agency, Wiener demanded she take immediate steps to fully implement the collection of the LGBTQ COVID data.

"We are now more than two months after SB 932 became the law, and as far as we can tell, CDPH has not made public any SOGI data around COVID-19. Indeed, based on my own personal experience and numerous reports from others, major COVID-19 testing sites are not collecting this data at all," wrote Wiener, who will be meeting with Pan this week. "SB 932 requires that all healthcare providers testing for COVID-19 collect this data. Yet, CDPH does not appear to have ensured that data collection, let alone publish it."

He stressed how there are "life or death consequences" when health officials and state leaders are blind to how a disease is impacting various demographic groups.

"It is only because of data that we know, for example, that COVID is killing Black people at outrageous rates and that our Latinx communities have very high infection rates. And, it is only because of data collection that we understand COVID's impacts on different age groups," wrote Wiener. "Yet, COVID's impacts on LGBTQ people are largely invisible due to the lack of data collection. We introduced and passed SB 932 to stop the erasure of the LGBTQ community. Yet, without strong implementation of this legal requirement by CDPH, that erasure will continue, and the law will be a dead letter."

When asked by the B.A.R. last month about the issues surrounding implementation of SB 932, Ghaly noted the order was still "fairly new" and promised to look into the issue.

"I'm always interested to hear from those who have to put into practice some of these changes, what the difficulties are, whether there is a reason it's delayed, that at the state level or the local level we can intervene and support," he said. "So I will highlight we are getting more and more of the sexual orientation-gender identity data attached to our cases. Of course, there's going to be some entities we know that don't put into practice the expectations and those are all worth following up."

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