A growing number of U.S. states have stopped giving daily updates of the number of new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, which, combined with the rise of at-home testing whose results are often not officially registered, is creating a more uneven real-time look at the state of the pandemic.
While most states still report each weekday, more than a dozen have cut back to once or twice a week, according to a New York Times database. Arizona, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina have moved to weekly reports, as has the District of Columbia. Wyoming has moved to twice-a-week reports. More reductions are expected to come, public health officials have said.
Nationally, the declines in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are tapering off, and some experts are concerned that the drop in reporting could create blind spots if the pandemic begins a resurgence.
Many states have recently dropped pandemic restrictions, even as cases surge again in Europe, which has often served as a bellwether for the pandemic’s U.S. trajectory. Though testing has fallen in some countries, detected cases are up globally about 20 percent over the last two weeks, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
A few states also scaled back their data reporting frequency last summer, just as a wave of new cases from the Delta variant hit. But there are key differences this time, health officials said.
“We’ve moved to a place where we don’t need to know the absolute numbers,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which represents the public health agencies of all 50 states, Washington D.C., and U.S. territories. “We can still monitor trends for people who are getting tests in public settings. We still have a good sense of where the absolute numbers are going.”
He said that the reduction in reporting would not necessarily mean that states would be less prepared for new waves. Past spikes have come from variants that were discovered and sequenced internationally, including Delta and Omicron. “It was a matter of waiting until they got here,” Dr. Plescia pointed out.
The benefits of the daily data reporting has also shifted, according to Dr. Gigi Gronvall, a testing expert and a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University.
“We did see this in June, the attempt to report it more like flu, and it was warranted then,” she said. “In June, cases had dropped, and we did not yet have Delta. We didn’t have much demand for, and didn’t have, rapid antigen tests. Now the government has literally given everyone tests. People who are getting tested who are testing positive are almost certainly not telling their health departments. So the data is pretty wonky.”
She said that other indicators are more valuable at this point, like hospitalization and vaccination numbers and wastewater surveillance.
Dr. Plescia agreed, saying it was the right time to bring Covid reporting more in line with how public health agencies track other infectious diseases. He said that the result would be a more complete picture of the coronavirus’s trajectory because there would be more time to iron out the fluctuations of daily data. In fact, the daily data “does not necessarily influence the interventions that we’re considering,” he said.
However, some researchers warned that the drawdown of state reporting on pandemic metrics presented a threat to response times.
“Infectious diseases like SARS-CoV-2 move very quickly, and therefore we need to respond quickly to early signals of rising cases or a new variant,” said Dr. Sam Scarpino, managing director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute. “Early action prevents school closures, mask mandates and saves lives. However, if we’re waiting around for days or weeks, or months for new data, it’s hard to see the signals quickly enough.”
Sarah Cahalan and Lisa Waananen Jones contributed reporting.