OMAHA, Neb. (AP
) — Several states reduced COVID-19
statistics reporting this month, just as cases across the country began to rise, depriving the public of real-time information on outbreaks, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths
in their communities.
The switch from daily to weekly reporting in Florida
, and South Dakota
marked a significant shift during a pandemic
in which coronavirus
dashboards have become a staple for Americans closely tracking case counts and trends to navigate a crisis that has killed more than 600,000 people
in the United States
In Nebraska, the state actually stopped reporting on the virus for two weeks after Gov. Pete Ricketts declared an end to the official virus emergency, forcing news
reporters to file public records requests or turn to national websites that track state data to learn about COVID statistics. The state later reversed course and launched a weekly website that provides some basic numbers.
Other governments have taken the opposite approach and released
more information, with Washington
, this week adding a dashboard on breakthrough
cases to show the number of residents who contracted the virus after receiving vaccines
, while many states have recently switched to reporting virus numbers only on weekdays.
When Florida changed the frequency of its virus reporting earlier this month, officials said it made sense given the declining number of cases and increasing number of people vaccinated.
As a result, with no statewide COVID stats coming out
of the virus hotspot for six days a week, Florida’s weekly releases — typically done on Friday afternoons — have consequences for the country’s understanding of the current summer surge.
In Florida's last two weekly reports, the number of new cases increased from 23,000 to 45,000, and then to 73,000 on Friday, an increase of more than 10,000 per day, and hospitals are running out of space
in some areas of the state.
As the number of reported cases continues to rise, Democrats
and other critics have urged state officials and Gov. Ron DeSantis
to resume providing daily outbreak updates.
“There was absolutely no reason to eliminate the daily updates other than to pretend there were no updates,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando
People have come to rely on state virus dashboards to help them decide whether to attend large gatherings or wear masks
in public, and understanding the level of risk in the community affects how people respond to virus restrictions and calls to genocide
“We know that showing the data to others is important because the actions that businesses, schools
, civic leaders, community leaders, and each of us individually take are all influenced by our perception of what the risk is out there,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who leads the epidemiology department.
However, reporting the numbers weekly allows people to see the overall trends while smoothing out some of the day-to-day variations that come from the way cases are reported rather than the actual number of new cases. Experts have long advised that it makes sense to pay more attention to the seven-day rolling average of new cases because the numbers can vary widely from one day to the next.
And, according to Florida health officials, data sharing with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
has not been reduced.
Maintaining daily virus updates does necessitate significant resources for states. For example, Kansas
switched to reporting virus numbers three times a week in May after the state health department complained that providing daily statistics took too much time from its already overburdened staff.
In Nebraska, officials decided that continuing to update the virus dashboard daily was not the best use of state resources at this time, partly because there had been a steady decline in the number of views of the website, indicating less interest in the numbers, said spokeswoman Olga Dack, adding that the state could return to providing daily updates if the governor
's office decided that was necessary.
“Now that Nebraska is back to normal,” Dack said, “some of the staff that has been dedicated to the dashboard has been able to focus on some of the other important issues.”
State health departments have a long history
of providing regular updates to the public on other diseases such as flu and West Nile, but those viruses lack the political baggage that COVID-19 carries.
In Florida, a former health department employee was fired last year after publicly implying that managers wanted her to manipulate data on coronavirus statistics to paint a rosier picture. The employee, Rebekah Jones
, did not allege any data tampering, but her comments cast doubt on the metrics' reliability.
Dr. David Brett-Major, an infectious disease specialist, said that for many people, national websites like the one run by the CDC
can be a good source of data on the latest state trends, and weekly updates could be fine
. He added that the World Health Organization
frequently uses weekly updates, but he said they do so for practical data management reasons, not political ones.
He was troubled by the message
Nebraska sent when it ended its dashboard, indicating that the state emergency had ended and conditions were returning to normal.
“The main issue is that it reflects a lack of interest in pandemic risk management,” Brett-Major of the University
of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha said.
Part of the problem, according to Janet Hamilton
, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, is that public health
officials generally do not have sophisticated data systems, making it more labor
intensive to produce daily dashboards.
“It would be fantastic if daily reporting could be made widely available, but public health would need to be better funded to do so, which is simply not the case right now,” Hamilton said.
Even in states where virus counts are not publicly reported on a daily basis, Hamilton said, health officials are still looking at the most recent data.
However, at a time when the delta variant
is “spreading with incredible efficiency,” according to the CDC director, Bibbins-Domingo believes it is critical that everyone is aware of the latest trends and understands the risks.
“Even though we know they are available to decisionmakers on a daily basis,” she said, “there is significant value in making the data available to the public.”