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Some states restrict public access to COVID-19 statistics amid spike in cases

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Some states restrict public access to COVID-19 statistics amid spike in cases

OMAHA, Nebraska (AP) – Several states lowered their reporting of COVID-19 statistics this month just as cases across the country began to skyrocket, depriving the public of real-time information on outbreaks, cases, hospitalizations and deaths in their homes. communities. .

The shift to weekly rather than daily reporting in Florida, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota marked a notable shift during a pandemic in which coronavirus dashboards have become a staple for Americans closely monitoring the Case counts and trends in navigating a crisis that has killed more than 600,000 people in the US.

In Nebraska, the state stopped reporting the virus entirely for two weeks after the governor. Pete Ricketts declared the official viral emergency over, forcing journalists to file public records requests or go to national websites that track state data for COVID statistics. The state went back two weeks later and created a weekly site that provides some basic numbers.

Other governments have gone the other direction and released more information, with Washington, DC, this week adding a breakthrough case dashboard to show the number of residents who contracted the virus after receiving the vaccines. Many states have recently moved to reporting virus numbers only on weekdays.

When Florida changed the frequency of its virus reports earlier this month, officials said it made sense given the decreasing number of cases and the increasing number of people vaccinated.

Cases began to rise soon after, with Florida earlier this week accounting for a fifth of the country’s new coronavirus infections. As a result, Florida’s weekly launches, which generally take place on Friday afternoons, have implications for the country’s understanding of the current summer surge, with no statewide COVID statistics coming out of the virus hotspot for six Days of the week.

In Florida’s last two weekly reports, the number of new cases skyrocketed from 23,000 to 45,000 and then to 73,000 on Friday, an average of more than 10,000 days. Hospitals are starting to run out of space in some parts of the state.

With the increase in cases, Democrats and other critics have urged state officials and the governor. Ron DeSantis to resume daily bud updates.

“There was absolutely no News Block to remove the daily updates beyond an effort to pretend there are no updates,” said State Representative Anna Eskamani, an Orlando-area Democrat.

The trend to reduce data reporting has alarmed infectious disease specialists, who believe that more information is better during a pandemic. People have come to rely on state virus control panels to help make decisions about whether to attend large gatherings or wear masks in public, and understanding the level of risk in the community affects how people respond to them. virus restrictions and calls to get vaccinated.

“We know that showing the data to others is really important because the actions that companies take, the actions that schools take, the actions that civic leaders take, the actions that community leaders take, the actions that each of us taken individually are influenced by our perception of what the risk is, ”said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, who heads the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.

But reporting the numbers weekly still allows people to see overall trends while smoothing out some of the daily variations that come from the way cases are reported and not the actual number of new cases. And experts have long warned that it makes sense to pay more attention to the seven-day moving average of new cases because the numbers can vary widely from day to day.

And Florida health officials say they have not restricted data sharing with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keeping daily updates on the virus requires significant resources for states. For example, Kansas began reporting virus numbers three times a week in May because the state health department said providing daily statistics was too time-consuming for its already overwhelmed staff.

In Nebraska, officials decided that continuing to update the virus dashboard on a daily basis was not the best use of state resources now, in part because there had been a steady decline in the number of visits to the website, indicating less interest in the numbers, spokeswoman Olga Dack said. . The state could revert to providing daily updates if the governor’s office decided it was necessary, he said.

“Now that Nebraska is back to normal, some of the board staff have been able to focus on some of the other important issues,” Dack said.

State health departments have a long history of providing the public with regular updates on other illnesses like the flu and West Nile, but those viruses have none of the political baggage associated with COVID-19.

In Florida, a former health department employee was fired last year after publicly suggesting that managers wanted her to manipulate information on coronavirus statistics to paint a more optimistic picture. The employee, Rebekah Jones, did not claim tampering with the data, but her comments cast doubt on the reliability of the metrics.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. David Brett-Major said that for many people, national websites like the CDC’s can be a good source of data on the latest state trends, and weekly updates might be fine. The World Health Organization often uses weekly updates, but said they do so for practical data management reasons, not political reasons.

He said the message Nebraska sent when he finished his dash that the state emergency was over and conditions were returning to normal was concerning.

“The main problem is that it reflects a disinterest in managing the risk of a pandemic,” said Brett-Major of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Janet Hamilton, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, said part of the problem is that public health officials generally don’t have sophisticated data systems, making it more time consuming to produce the daily dashboards. Although public health agencies have money for operations at a time when pandemic public spending is plentiful, they have not necessarily had a chance to improve.

“It would be great if the daily reports could be widely available, but public health would have to be better funded to do that and right now that is not the case,” said Hamilton.

And even in states where virus numbers aren’t being publicly reported every day, health officials are still looking for the latest data, Hamilton said.

But at a time when the delta variant, in the words of the CDC director, “is spreading with incredible efficiency,” Bibbins-Domingo said it’s important for everyone to be able to see the latest trends and understand the risks.

“Even if we know that it is available to decision makers on a daily basis, it is very valuable to provide the data to the public,” he said.

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