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Exclusive: Warren, Pressley and other lawmakers demand answers from White House on COVID-19 racial disparities

A group of Senate and House Democrats on Wednesday asked the White House to take immediate steps to address racial disparities in COVID-19 cases in the United States, and questioned the accuracy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s demographic data on the coronavirus pandemic.

In separate letters to Vice President Mike Pence and the CDC, and shared with the PBS NewsHour, the Democrats urged the Trump administration to prioritize African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities and other marginalized groups who have been disproportionately impacted by the public health crisis.

“The White House Coronavirus Task Force has a responsibility to mobilize a whole of government response to direct support, information, and resources to the communities that are being hit the hardest,” the Democrats wrote in the letter to Pence, who is leading the task force.

The letter was signed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and eight other Democrats, including Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Ed Markey D-Mass., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also signed along with Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Robin Kelly, D-Ill., and Cedric Richmond, D-La.

Click here to read the full letter to Pence.

Click here to read the full letter to the CDC.

The group asked the White House to respond by May 13 with information about the task force’s plans for addressing racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes.

They also asked the White House to identify “public health campaign efforts” the federal government is making specifically for communities of color, which experts and advocacy groups are being consulted on issues relating to racial disparities, and how the government is determining virus hotspots.

The CDC and the White House task force did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In the letter to Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, the Democrats said the agency must “improve the accuracy and comprehensiveness” of federal government data on the race and ethnicity of coronavirus victims.

As of Wednesday night, there were more than 1 million positive cases of coronavirus in the U.S., and 55,225 deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project. A report from the CDC, which began releasing demographic data on coronavirus cases earlier this month, showed that African Americans make up approximately 30 percent of cases, despite representing just 13 percent of the overall U.S. population.

The coronavirus relief bill President Donald Trump signed into law last week requires that the administration issue regular reports on the demographic breakdown of COVID-19 cases.

But the Democrats said they “continue to have concerns about the comprehensiveness of this data,” citing an April 24 CDC report that they said did not contain demographic statistics for more than half of the COVID-19 cases.

They also urged the CDC to improve data collection on the impacts to Native American communities and people with disabilities. “We are particularly alarmed by reports of the lack of dedicated CDC funding and resources to tribal governments and organizations to build public health infrastructure in Indian Country,” the letter said.

The group also asked the CDC to work with local leaders to start “public information campaigns” focused on helping marginalized communities and those with disabilities.

“The disparities in our society did not begin with the COVID-19 pandemic, but this crisis has exposed the deep inequality in the health and economic security of our communities,” the letter said.

The letters to Pence and the CDC come as the White House faces greater pressure to slow the spread of the virus across the country, including in communities of color that are bearing the brunt of the crisis.

Trump and some senior administration officials have acknowledged the toll the virus was taking on African Americans. “We’re doing everything in our power to address this challenge. It’s a tremendous challenge. It’s terrible,” Trump said at a press conference on April 7.

Correspondents Amna Nawaz and Yamiche Alcindor contributed reporting.