If There Is a COVID-19 Resurgence, Could D.C. Detect It?

While I’ll focus on D.C., this is a question every state should be asking itself. Some readers might be aware that I post a daily recap of D.C.’s COVID-19 statistics on the Twitterz. Those who follow that fifteen month long thread (?!?) will know that I’ve been highlighting lots of problems with D.C.’s data reporting.

Before I continue, let me be clear I’m not attacking the poor people who’ve been stuck with the miserable task of daily updates: it’s abundantly clear, based on the types of errors and missing data, that the process is far more ‘artisnal’ and manual than it needs to be. It must be frustrating to have to work in that system (without revealing my Top Sekrit Identity, I suppose I’m something of an expert, or close to one anyway, on how to take large amounts of biological data and report them daily).

That said, D.C. isn’t reporting cases over the weekend, the data have date errors (not to mention a ton of inconsistencies among different worksheets on the same day), and ward level total test data, which are needed to put the ward level new daily cases in context, often aren’t reported (usually, they’re not). Right now, this isn’t a problem, as new daily positives are very low. But if vaccination doesn’t pick up–and remember, there’s a five week lag between the first shot and adequate protection against the variants–we’re going to have a bad late summer or early fall*.

Given the state of the data reporting, would we be able to detect it? Remember that data accuracy is critical, not when you’re cataloging the apocalypse, but when the run up to said apocalypse is happening. At what point would D.C. restore some resources to provide more accuracy? And would it be too late?

This isn’t just a local problem either. Nationally, we’re losing access to daily reports (boldface mine):

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…

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…

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.

…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.

My current HAWT TAEK is that, unless D.C. really cranks up vaccination by August 1–and vaccinating 0.1% of the total population per day isn’t enough at all–we will have a bad late summer/early fall. It won’t be like January, where we had more people dying from COVID-19 than from heart disease, but we will see hospitalizations and some deaths, along with ‘long COVID.’ None of this needs to happen, but if we can’t get it done on vaccination, we need a fallback position, which would be detection.

But Mayor Bowser gonna Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council gonna D.C. Council, so they won’t do anything. Time to trust, once again, in von Bismarck’s adage that “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.”

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