America’s COVID-19 Data Problem
Beginning with the federal government’s initial insistence on developing a CDC-made test that had contamination issues and took too long to roll out, data from testing was limited. Since testing was mostly in people with serious symptoms, the numbers only represented a small portion of those with COVID.
Tracking the virus became increasingly more challenging as states reported cases in different ways. Tests and vaccines became more widespread — but were more accessible to white and affluent people as COVID revealed deep inequities in healthcare. No one was collecting demographic data, which FiveThirtyEight said could been used to find out “which essential occupations are leading to more exposures, which groups need testing but can’t access it, and other important trends.”
Researchers turned eventually to hospitalizations as a better measuring stick for COVID’s prevalence, and then vaccinations, but even this data wasn’t reliable and states were slow to report because there was no standardized system to do so. Vaccination itself, with two doses that could have happened in two different states, and other tracking challenges, wasn’t the metric scientists had hoped for.
Delta and Omicron presented new hurdles — like breakthrough cases, which the CDC only reported if they resulted in hospitalization or death — or the question of “incidental” COVID, which could be a case that was discovered only after someone was admitted to a hospital for something else.
Now, some states are reporting less frequently and halting contact tracing operations. Experts worry, according to FiveThirtyEight, that “the reporting systems built up during the past few years may fall to the wayside after the pandemic is declared ‘over,’ when really, we should be fortifying them for future preparedness.”