States Scale Back Pandemic Reporting, Stirring Alarm

Jun 11, 2021
Originally published on June 11, 2021 7:20 am

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.

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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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NOEL KING, HOST:

As the coronavirus pandemic recedes in this country, more states have started to scale back how often they report what's happening with the virus. Some public health experts are worried about that. Here's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: As it became clear the vaccination campaign was finally beating back the virus, Jolianne Stone says Oklahoma decided it was time to cut back how often the state was updating its COVID dashboard.

JOLIANNE STONE: 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 like county-level data and hospitalizations and deaths.

STEIN: Oklahoma is one of at least two dozen states that have stopped doing daily tallies of how many people are catching the virus, how many people are ending up in a hospital, how many people are dying. Some stopped reporting anything over the weekend; others cut back to just a few times a week. Florida is just the latest state to go to just once a week like Oklahoma. Stone says this frees up harried public health workers to do other things, like dig deeper into cases and focus on more pressing issues.

STONE: Before, we were getting as little information as possible and trying to report that as fast as we could, and it just wasn't as accurate as we'd like it to be. And this allows our staff to focus on vaccination so that we could pull them to do vaccinations.

STEIN: But this is setting off alarms among some public health experts.

BETH BLAUER: One of the most troubling trends recently has been that states are making the decision to either slow or wind down their reporting efforts.

STEIN: Beth Blauer helps run the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins, which became a leading source of information about the pandemic in the United States.

BLAUER: I think it's absolutely appropriate for us to celebrate the progress that we've made, but we still are very much navigating a pandemic. We haven't gotten to the point where we can stake victory.

STEIN: Blauer and others worry that cutting back on daily reporting could leave lots of places in the dark about new outbreaks until it's too late, especially in the many parts of the country where lots of people still haven't gotten vaccinated.

BLAUER: 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.

STEIN: But state health officials like Karen Landers defend their decision. Landers is with the Alabama Department of Public Health.

KAREN LANDERS: We've had our finger on the pulse of this pandemic from the beginning in the state of Alabama. So we did not feel that this is going to change that response at all. We are going to continue to monitor very closely and respond expediently to the pandemic, as we have been from the beginning.

STEIN: And others agree it's time to think about monitoring COVID like the flu instead of counting every case. Here's Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

MARCUS PLESCIA: I think it's time for a new approach to how we monitor the pandemic. I mean, things are very, very different now than they were six months ago.

STEIN: But others think it's just too soon, especially as more dangerous variants, like the one first spotted in India, are starting to spread more widely in this country. William Hanage is an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

WILLIAM HANAGE: If you turn on 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. So for goodness sakes, if there's one thing this virus has taught us, it's that it's not one of those movies where you think the villain is vanquished and then they come back and mount one last attack. Even though I think that we've got this virus pretty much licked, that doesn't mean that we can take our eye off the ball just yet.

STEIN: Hanage and others are especially worried about many Southern and Western states, which tend to be the ones cutting back on their reporting even though they're way behind on vaccinating people. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.