OMAHA, Nebraska — Several states reduced their reporting of COVID-19 statistics this month, as cases skyrocketed nationwide, letting the public know about outbreaks, cases, hospitalizations and deaths in their communities. Real-time information denied.
The shift to weekly rather than daily reporting in Florida, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota marked a marked turnaround during a pandemic in which coronavirus dashboards have become a staple for Americans, which have killed more than 600,000 people. Closely track case counts and trends to navigate the crisis. people in america
In Nebraska, after Governor Pete Ricketts announced an end to the official virus emergency, the state stopped reporting on the virus altogether for two weeks, allowing journalists to file public records requests or turn to national websites. who track state data to know about the COVID statistics. The state withdrew two weeks later and came up with a weekly report of some basic numbers.
Other governments have gone the other direction and released more information, with Washington this week adding a dashboard on success cases to show the number of residents who contracted the virus after getting a vaccine. Several states have recently only gone so far as to report virus numbers on weekdays.
When Florida changed the frequency of its virus reporting earlier this month, officials said it was understandable given the declining number of cases and the increasing number of people getting vaccinated.
Cases began to rise soon thereafter, and earlier this week Florida’s cases made up a fifth of the country’s new coronavirus infections. As a result, Florida’s weekly release – usually done on Friday afternoon – has consequences for the country’s understanding of the current heatwave, with no statewide COVID statistics coming out of virus hotspots six days a week.
In Florida’s last two weekly reports, the number of new cases jumped from 23,000 to 45,000 and then 73,000 on Friday, averaging more than 10,000 a day. Hospital space has started running out in some parts of the state.
With cases rising, Democrats and other critics have urged state officials and Governor Ron DeSantis to resume daily outbreak updates.
“There was no reason to eliminate daily updates beyond an attempt to pretend like there are no updates,” said state representative Anna Escamani, a Democrat from the Orlando area.
The tendency to reduce data reporting has worried infectious-disease experts, who believe that more information is better during pandemics. People have come to rely on state virus dashboards to help them make decisions about whether to attend large gatherings or wear masks in public, and understanding the level of risk in the community affects how people are exposed to virus restrictions and vaccinations. How do you answer the call?
“We know it’s really important to show data to others because the actions that businesses take, the actions that schools take, the actions that citizen leaders take, the actions that community leaders take, the actions that each of us takes individually. They are all affected by our perception of what the risk is,” Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who leads the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco.
Reporting the numbers weekly still allows people to see overall trends while smoothing out some of the day-to-day changes that come with reporting cases. And experts have long advised that it is prudent to focus more on the seven-day rolling average of new cases because the numbers can vary widely from one day to the next.
And Florida health officials say they have not stopped sharing data with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Maintaining daily updates on the virus requires significant resources for states. For example, Kansas went as far as to report virus numbers three times a week in May because the state health department said providing daily figures wastes too much time on its employees.
In Nebraska, officials decided that continuing to update the virus dashboard daily was not the best use of state resources, partly because the number of website views had declined steadily, indicating little interest in the numbers. , spokeswoman Olga Dak said. He said the state could come back to provide daily updates if the governor’s office decided there was a need.
State health departments have a long history of providing regular updates to the public on flu and other diseases like West Nile, but those viruses don’t have any of the political baggage associated with COVID-19.
In Florida, a former Health Department employee was fired last year after publicly suggesting that managers wanted him to manipulate information on coronavirus figures to paint a rosy picture. The employee, Rebekah Jones, did not allege any tampering with the data, but her comments raised doubts about the reliability of the metrics.
Weekly Updates, No Updates
Infectious-disease expert Dr. David Brett-Major said that for many, national websites run by the CDC can be a good source of data on the latest state trends, and that weekly updates may be just fine. The World Health Organization often uses weekly updates, but they said they do so for practical data management reasons, not political ones.
He said the message Nebraska sent out when she finished her dashboard — that the state of emergency was over and conditions were returning to normal — was disturbing.
“The main problem is that this pandemic reflects a distaste in risk management,” said Brett-Major with the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
Janet Hamilton, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, said part of the problem is that public health officials typically don’t have sophisticated data systems, making daily dashboards more labor-intensive to produce. Even though public health agencies have the money to operate at a time when pandemic government spending is flush, they don’t necessarily have the chance to upgrade.
“It would be great if daily reporting could be made widely available, but public health would have to be better funded to do that and that’s not the case right now,” Hamilton said.
And even in states where virus numbers are not being publicly reported every day, health officials are still looking at the latest figures, Hamilton said.
But at a time when the delta version is “spreading with incredible efficiency,” in the words of the CDC director, Bibbins-Domingo said it’s important that everyone can see the latest trends and understand the risks.
“Even if we know they are available to decision-makers on a daily basis, there is considerable value to providing data to the public,” she said.