States are scaling back on reporting Covid-19 data, but some experts say it’s too soon

Only about half of US states still provide daily updates on key Covid-19 metrics — such as new cases, deaths, hospitalizations and vaccinations — a trend that worries some public health experts.

Two of the largest scale-backs took effect this week, with Florida dropping down to one update per week and Alabama cutting back to two to three updates per week, depending on the type of data.

Alabama’s decision to publish updates less frequently comes alongside steady decreases in daily cases, deaths and hospitalizations, Dr. Karen Landers, a health officer with the state health department, told CNN.

“The changes are smaller and less dramatic, for lack of a better word,” she said. “It’s time to refocus our efforts.”

Indeed, average daily Covid-19 cases in Alabama have dropped about 93% since their January peak. The state reported an average of 321 cases per day over the past week and 12 deaths per day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Average daily reported cases in the United States overall have also dropped more than 90% since their January peak — down to about 15,000 per day — and back to levels last seen in March 2020. But about 300 people are still dying each day in the US, JHU data shows.

Some experts think the shift away from daily reporting is happening too soon.

“As far as I know, we’re still in a public health emergency as a country,” Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, told CNN on Wednesday. “That has not been downgraded yet.”

Beth Blauer, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Centers for Civic Impact, says she expected such an adjustment, but it’s happening sooner and more aggressively than she expected.

Johns Hopkins University has become a vital source of information throughout the pandemic, compiling various data feeds into one centralized data hub.

Blauer said she and her team pay close attention to public releases and other updates from states regarding their Covid-19 data to manage the quality and consistency of their data feeds. They noticed subtle changes in the fall, with states starting to cut back on weekend reporting, but she said she’s surprised at how strong the trend has become.

“You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t experience some pandemic fatigue,” Blauer told CNN. “But I think it’s a little premature.”

Consistent, daily data reporting can draw attention to subtle shifts that might be missed with less frequent updates.

“It gives a much more granular view of what’s happening. It helps public health officials understand better if it’s a temporary spike or if it requires an intervention,” Blauer said.

And while the studies on vaccine efficacy are very promising, certain individuals — including those who are immunocompromised or young children who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated — still face risk.

Daily data reporting provides critical “backup” information to help people and public officials alike make decisions about the safety of engaging in various social activities, Blauer said.

NACCHO’s Freeman agrees.

“We still need to figure out what herd immunity really looks like,” she said. That point “might be a good time frame to consider” scaling back on data tracking or perhaps there is some other set of metrics to be considered, she said, but “I don’t think it’s now.”

While Alabama has scaled back its public reporting of Covid-19 data — the main surveillance dashboard will update each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and updates to the vaccination dashboard will be published on Tuesdays and Thursdays — the state plans to continue internal data reviews on a daily basis.

“We will still be monitoring the data on a daily basis. That’s not going to change,” Landers said. “But in terms of extensive processing for external use and visualization, there are ways to better utilize the talents of the team.”

The general public has been relying on public data in an unprecedented way throughout the pandemic.

In Maryland, an average of about 20,000 people visited the state’s Covid-19 dashboard each day last month. That’s down from about 50,000 daily visitors a year ago, but it still amounts to about one in 10 state residents visiting a government data dashboard in one month.

“As people look at their own communities they are, every day, making decisions about what to do and how to do it,” Dr. Cliff Mitchell, director of the Environmental Health Bureau at the Maryland Department of Health, told CNN. “We feel that (continuing to publish daily data) is the best way we can keep our state and our community informed about how things are going.”

Over the past week, Maryland has had one of the lowest per capita rates of new cases, according to JHU data. But unlike Alabama, Maryland does not see that as a reason to scale back and doesn’t have a benchmark in mind.

“We have not at this point discussed a change in reporting pattern,” Mitchell said.

For Blauer at Johns Hopkins University, the benefits of regular, transparent data reporting by the public sector extend far beyond the pandemic.

“States have spent 15 to 18 months building up this infrastructure and, in a really stunning way, have positioned themselves to be the standard bearers of how information is shared with the public, while also building trust,” she said.

“By winding down, the question is what will happen to this new infrastructure and skill set. By putting this genie back in the bottle, we lose the capacity to take advantage of them,” perhaps repurposing them to address other pervasive, persistent challenges such as violent crime.