Flying Blind: Tracking COVID Is Now Harder Given Limited Information

An obvious indication that the COVID-19 figures are not what they once were: The absence of trustworthy information has forced organisations that many people had depended on as the finest sources for up-to-date information on the coronavirus pandemic to reduce their reporting.

Systems for recording COVID-19 tests, cases, and other data have been updated by Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Johns Hopkins data scientists changed from updating their statistics and forecasts once an hour to once a day, seven days a week. The decision was made since the number of formally reported instances significantly decreased as more people started using home tests in place of in-person exams.

According to Beth Blauer, data lead for the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, “Testing data has been problematic for some time, but the utility of official state testing results has been greatly diminished by the widespread use of at-home COVID tests, which are not tracked in most government data.”

Hopkins has ceased disclosing test results and positivity rates for each state as a result. The website’s present content will continue to be visible, but it won’t be updated going forward.

What You Can’t Count, You Can’t Track

In general, there is less time left now. When information is accessible, Blauer adds, it can occasionally be ambiguous or inconsistent. More than half of states now only provide data on immunizations, testing, cases, and deaths once every week.

And experts say it is an issue.

Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, and editor-in-chief of Medscape, a website for medical professionals that is a sister site to WebMD, says that undercounting is bad because it prevents us from knowing the status of the pandemic, the scope of its spread, or the potential harm it may cause.

The absence of concrete figures is obvious. The New York Times continues to maintain one of the most comprehensive COVID-19 tracking websites of any private institution. However, there are now many caveats.

For instance, the newspaper today indicates that there were no new cases in New York City yesterday.

Yesterday in New York City, no new instances were reported. This can be the result of a delay in reporting instances and doesn’t necessarily imply that no one got sick yesterday, according to a note on the website.

Researchers can still look to the number of people hospitalized with SARS-CoV-2 infection and track COVID-19 deaths, because that data is still tracked. But those factors don’t get as close to a big picture like the positive case reports from large-scale testing sites earlier in the pandemic.

Further clouding the situation are the summer 2022 surge and vaccination rates, which suggest “considerable immunity” in most states, officials at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation write in a Sept. 9, 2022 COVID-19 Results Briefing.

The briefing authors estimate that 80% of people in the U.S. have received at least one vaccine dose and 70% were fully vaccinated as of Aug. 29. CDC data says much the same.

However, according to University of Washington experts, 95% of Americans have at least once contracted the disease.

The Best Chance at Vaccine Statistics

Johns Hopkins is also altering the way it keeps track of COVID-19 vaccination figures. The network of exclusive sources used by its Coronavirus Resource Center to monitor vaccines is being shut down. They will only use CDC data moving forward for domestic immunisation rates and Our World in Data and the World Health Organization for international immunisation rates.

All things considered, this site, which many used for reliable COVID-19 tracking, has undergone some significant alterations.

One of the best sources for free, almost-real-time pandemic data reporting has been the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. There have been over 1.2 billion page views on its website.

In essence, “Flying Blind”

A top source for continually updated COVID-19 data is the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Similar to what happened at Johns Hopkins, Ali Mokdad, PhD, said that “the data is impeding our capability and our ability to follow COVID-19.” The institute began updating statistics once a month in March after initially doing so twice a week throughout the outbreak.
Even with the statistical know-how of its team, “We are having a hard time, quite honestly,” says Mokdad, an epidemiologist and professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington. For instance, not all nations report information as frequently or with the same quality.

He advises, “You have to look at your own risk and you have to take care of those around you and in your own community,” in light of the dearth of statistics. That is the public’s message.

More than just home testing, according to Mokdad, is at fault.

For instance, the majority of Omicron infections, such as BA.4, BA.5, and the recently discovered BA.4.6, are symptomless. Therefore, 75% of those who are receiving Omicron don’t exhibit any symptoms and have no need to self-test.

Mokdad claims, “We are essentially flying blind.” In order to track [cases] and decide what needs to be done, “we don’t know how many people are sick in each location.”

Blauer from Johns Hopkins feels that any hasty responses to potential reforms could backfire. When data is accessible in almost real time, public health officials can respond to emerging hotspots more quickly, she claims. “As people spend more time indoors in the fall and winter, many experts predict a potential rise in diseases.”

Therefore, if officials are unable to react quickly to further outbreaks, “we may witness the impact of decreasing government reporting,” she adds.

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