Some states are discontinuing daily public updates on COVID-19 data in favor of a slower reporting cadence. The shift will hinder the ability to provide the real time analysis needed to monitor the pandemic, including the emergence of variants.
State data dashboards have been an integral component of the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The data they provide have led to major policy decisions across all levels of government and influenced the behavior and decisions of many Americans. Due in large part to these efforts, test positivity rates are now dramatically decreasing across the country. In response to decreasing case numbers, many states (highlighted on the map below) have begun to slow their reporting cadences. While lower numbers are cause for measured optimism, we urge officials to stay the course of daily reporting, and not allow their data to go “stale” by releasing it infrequently. For more than a year, CRC experts encouraged daily reporting from states instead of weekly reporting 1. Now that we are finally winning the battle against COVID-19, we cannot stop fighting. This virus is not going away.
Real-time public health data is the most powerful weapon against a pandemic 2, 3. Temporal sensitivity of data is analogous to resolution in a photograph. Take the following image for instance:
The image on the left is full resolution. Though camouflaged, you can still see the cheetahs lurking in the center of the frame. The photograph on the right has seven-fold lower resolution—the same transformation that would take place if states transitioned from daily to once-weekly reporting. The general understanding of the landscape remains the same, but the lack of resolution prevents us from identifying specific risks that require immediate action. This concept of resolution is applicable to data sourced from state COVID-19 dashboards. An example pulled directly from the data by scientists at the JHU Coronavirus Resource Center involves hospitalizations in Michigan. Hospitalization data has one of the highest resolutions in the realm of COVID-19 data due to standardized data reporting methods mandated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services 4. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services releases the hospitalization data it receives from the states daily 5.
The daily reporting of data (solid blue line on the graph below) allowed for early identification of the shift in trends in mid-March 2021 by news outlets and hospitals 6-8. This fine temporal resolution gave government and public health officials within Michigan, including Governor Gretchen Whitmer 9, time to respond to the new outbreak before it overtook levels last seen in fall 2020. This quick action allowed the federal government time to mobilize additional COVID-19 vaccine doses as well as over 200 federal personnel to aid in distribution of the vaccines 10.
*Hospitalization data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
If data had only been provided with one-week resolution (red bars on the graph above), then the trend shift is not necessarily clear until later. By March 20th the daily data was already showing 1500 daily hospitalizations, while the most recent weekly data point was still at 1000 hospitalizations, thus inadvertently ignoring the exponential growth for days. This would have resulted in a delay in the identification of the increase in cases, the request of Governor Whitmer for federal aid, and the full response of the U.S. government. The JHU Coronavirus Resource Center policy tracker also shows that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services extended its Gatherings and Mask epidemic order on April 16 in response to accelerating case numbers. Without timely data, policy decisions such as these can be delayed, leading to more unnecessary deaths from COVID-19.
Public health data scientists would prefer all data to have the resolution of this hospitalization data. Maintaining daily reporting will be necessary to ongoing virus tracking efforts and mitigation of the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes state rollback of data reporting extremely concerning. Some states have argued that the dashboards are no longer necessary since the CDC tracks pandemic data. While the CDC does aggregate COVID-19 data, it is important to note that the CDC is limited to using data filed through official reporting channels, which are not publicly available. This can result in a serious reporting lag as well as data discrepancies when state updates are out of sync with official federal channels.
If states decide to roll back their COVID-19 dashboards, then the nation’s ability to respond and react quickly to the continuing pandemic will be seriously impeded. The rollback of reporting frequency indicates that many states do not see this past year of investment in data infrastructure and public data reporting as a permanent fixture. It is crucial that we maintain the infrastructure developed during the pandemic, both to monitor the continued spread of COVID-19 and safeguard against future public health crises. States signaling that they want to treat the COVID-19 response like the responses to previous pandemics – a temporary fix that doesn’t prioritize planning for the next crisis – is unacceptable. We are positioned to prepare our data infrastructure for future threats, and we cannot let states choose to dismantle that costly and crucial investment.
1. C. Woodard, Maine is the only state that’s not calculating positive test rate daily, The Portland Press Herald, 13 May 2020.
2. M. Roser, Our history is a battle against the microbes: we lost terribly before science, public health, and vaccines allowed us to protect ourselves, Our World in Data, 20 July 2020.
3. B.C.K. Choi, The past, present, and future of public health surveillance, Scientifica (Cairo) 2012 (2012) 875253-875253.
4. CMS releases guidance on COVID-19 data reporting as a condition of hospitals’ Medicare participation, American Hospital Association, 6 October 2020.
5. COVID-19 Reported Patient Impact and Hospital Capacity by State Timeseries, in: U.S.D.o.H.H. Services (Ed.) healthdata.gov, 2021.
6. C. Mauger, Michigan COVID-19 hospitalization rates jump among younger people, The Detroit News, 24 March 2021.
7. K.J. Shamus, Michigan's COVID-19 rates, hospitalizations trending in wrong direction, Detroit Free Press, 17 March 2021.
8. D. Rubin, B. Fisher, M. Matone, S. Coffin, J. Huang, COVID-19 Outlook: Navigating School Reopenings During a Period of Sustained Community Transmission, Health Care Coverage, Access & Quality, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab, 24 March 2021.
9. K.V. Brown, T. Schoenberg, Michigan Governor Whitmer Urges a ‘Surge’ in Covid Vaccine Doses, Bloomberg, 11 April 2021.
10. Michigan to receive additional federal resources to help get more Michiganders vaccinated faster, at governor's request, The Office of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, 22 April 2021.