In the wake of a wave of warnings from officials about a potential resurgence of COVID-19 in the US, there is growing concern among health experts that the dwindling access to public data, closed by COVID-19 test sites and with an increasing number of people , which instead uses home tests, it can leave the nation vulnerable to unforeseen increases.
“Comprehensive case data is essential for an effective response. As we have seen throughout the pandemic, lack of data leads to poor decision-making and ultimately costs lives,” Drs. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and a contributor to ABC News, said.
Since last summer, dozens of states and federal agencies have chosen to step down from regular data reporting. Few states still offer COVID-19 data reports seven days a week, with most now switching to weekly or alternate day schedules.
“Federal public health has no statutory authority to control what and how public health data is reported. As such, the CDC relies on a patchwork of approaches to collecting data voluntarily provided by state and local jurisdictions,” a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement to ABC News on Monday. “This pandemic demonstrated the inadequacies of the broken patchwork system. Immediate and complete data is needed to make the best recommendations to keep people safe and informed about policy making.”
Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services also finalized the requirement for hospitals to report several important COVID-19 measurements, including a daily total of the number of COVID-19 deaths, the number of emergency department overflows and ventilated patients, and information on critical staff shortage.
The decision comes weeks after the CDC unveiled a new plan to determine the COVID-19 risk in communities and updated its facewear recommendations, allowing almost the entire country to become mask-free under the new guidelines.
Some health experts have criticized the guide, suggesting it gives Americans a false sense of security as it relies less on transmission-related data and more on the availability of hospital beds.
In recent weeks, wastewater monitoring has become a critical measure. At present, indicators suggest that COVID-19 infection rates may be higher than first assumed; an increase in the number of wastewater sites monitored by the CDC has seen an increase in the presence of the COVID-19 virus in their wastewater.
Although wastewater may be a useful tool used as a preliminary indicator of COVID-19 trends in the United States, experts said it would not be sufficient to use it alone to predict data trends.
“While we have other monitoring tools such as wastewater virus levels and hospitalization counts, test data provide an understanding of the full extent of community transfer and ultimately risk to our health systems,” Brownstein said.
From coast to coast, dozens of states have moved to closed public testing sites, as at-home COVID-19 testing has become more available at pharmacies and offered to Americans through the federal testing program.
However, most Americans do not report their findings to officials, which is why experts said the number of infections is likely to be understated.
Reported test levels are now at their lowest point in eight months, with reported test numbers falling by almost 75% since the beginning of the year.
“Testing has always been a cornerstone of our pandemic response. Without this monitoring data, we are flying blind and will almost certainly repeat the mistakes of the past,” Brownstein said. “When we close test sites, we not only endanger individuals, their contacts and their communities, we undermine critical public health infrastructure.”
Of further concern is the potential for the CDC, which has compiled important COVID-19 measurements throughout the pandemic, to lose access to data following the loss of federal funding.
“We are the compiler of the data, but we do not have the authority to collect it. And therefore we depend on states being willing to share it with us and the data use license, data use agreements, in order to do so.” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CBS News earlier this month.
When the public health declaration lapses, the agency will no longer have access to many key data metrics.
“Data related to COVID-19 test results and hospitalizations are currently available due to the public health emergency statement. When this statement expires, the CDC’s access to this important information will expire,” the CDC representative explained.
The CDC has embarked on an aggressive data modernization effort, the agency told ABC News. With adequate funding, these efforts will enable the sharing of data and information across the public health ecosystem.
“System-wide modernization and change for the benefit of all public health requires the CDC to have the authority to coordinate and guide how data is reported and shared for evidence-based decision-making,” the CDC representative said. “The nation can no longer continue with the current, fragmented approach to collecting public health data to be better prepared for future pandemics.”