States Scale Back Pandemic Reporting, Stirring Alarm
As the pandemic calms in the U.S., a growing number of states have started scaling back how often they update their dashboards tracking what's happening with the virus.
The moves are sparking alarm among many public health experts.
"One of the most troubling trends recently has been that states are making the decision to either slow or wind down their reporting efforts," says Beth Blauer, who helps run the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, a leading source of information about the pandemic. "I think it's absolutely appropriate for us to celebrate the progress we've made, but we still are very much navigating a pandemic. We haven't gotten to the point where we can stake victory," Blauer says.
At least two dozen states that have stopped updating daily the number of people catching the virus, being hospitalized and dying, according to Johns Hopkins. Some stopped reporting anything over weekends. Others cut back to just a few times a week. Florida is the latest state to go to just once a week — Oklahoma is another one that has reduced to once a week reporting.
State officials are defending the changes, which they say allow public health workers to focus limited resources where they are needed most, such as improving the quality of the data and boosting vaccinations.
"As our cases were trending downwards and our vaccination rates were increasing, it made more sense for us to go to weekly reporting for certain things," says Jolianne Stone, the Oklahoma Department of Health's epidemiologist. "We still do have a pulse of what is going with COVID here in Oklahoma. And I feel very confident in that."
But Blauer and others worry that cutting back on daily reporting could leave those states in the dark about new outbreaks until it's too late, especially in where vaccinations remain very low.
"Without that kind of high-fidelity full view of the information we're going to end up really falling short in our ability to appropriately respond from a public health perspective," Blauer says.
For Oklahoma's Stone, the move makes sense given the limited public health resources in her state. "Before we were getting as little information as possible and trying to report that as fast we could, and it just wasn't as accurate as we'd like to be," Stone says. "This allows our staff to focus on vaccination."
Other state officials also defend the decision to reduce reporting.
"We do not feel that this is going to change that response at all," says Dr. Karen Landers, an assistant state health officer at the Alabama Department of Public Health, which cut back reporting to three days a week. "We are going to continue to monitor very closely and respond expediently to the pandemic as we have been from the beginning."
It may be time to think about monitoring COVID more like the flu instead of counting every case, argues Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. "Things are very, very different now then they were six months ago. And we've also got to think about how we're allocating resources."
But there's concern it's just too soon to make that shift, especially as more dangerous variants, such as the Delta variant first spotted in India, has starting to spread more widely in the U.S.
"If you turn out the light, you can't see what's going on. Or if you only turn on the light every now and then, something nasty could be building and you wouldn't know until it was too late," says William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"If there's one thing this virus has taught us is that it's like one of those movies where you think that the the villain is vanquished and then they come back and mount one last attack," Hanage says.
"Even though I think that we've got this virus pretty much licked, it doesn't mean that we can take our eye off the ball just yet."
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