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Test kits at a COVID-19 drive-thru site in Omaha. It’s unclear what information on race or ethnicity is being collected.

One of the strongest tools for fighting the coronavirus is information. The fuller our understanding of this new disease, the better our health authorities and government leaders will be able to make sound decisions to protect the public. Improving our knowledge of how the virus affects specific ethnic and racial groups is a key gap that must be filled in the Midlands and nationally.

Collecting and analyzing that data can help health authorities develop more effective outreach and prevention strategies. Current coronavirus data “suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups,” the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and many county health departments haven’t been tracking coronavirus cases by race or ethnicity, however. They acknowledge that shortcoming and say they’re beginning such collection efforts.

It’s vital that they do. The preliminary coronavirus numbers in the Midlands make clear the need for fuller data collection. Consider the numbers so far in Douglas County, which has been tracking such data: Black residents account for 12% of the county’s population but 21.2% of coronavirus cases. Hispanics, almost 13% of the population but nearly 17% of cases. Asians, about 4% of the population but 9.5% of coronavirus cases.

The preliminary data indicate even greater disparities in Iowa, The World-Herald’s Erin Duffy reports: Black residents account for 4% of the state’s population but 14.2% of cases; Latinos, 6% of the population but 21.3% of confirmed cases.

Black and Latino residents often have higher probabilities of high blood pressure or diabetes and work conditions that increase their potential exposure to the virus. The Midlands meatpacking plants that employ considerable minority populations and in many cases have become virus hot spots, as in Nebraska’s Hall, Dawson and Dakota Counties.

An Associated Press analysis of available state and local data found that African Americans make up about 14% of the population in those states and localities but almost 33% of virus-related deaths.

The coronavirus, in short, is not only posing an immediate threat to minority populations. It’s also illustrating the nation’s longstanding health inequalities. The task, then, is to defeat the virus in the near term and strengthen preventive health care for all Americans in the long term.