Why COVID-19 Data is Becoming Unreliable

With so much up in the air during the current unprecedented times, many have turned to online news and health sources to track the state of the current coronavirus pandemic since January. Online traffic seeking out facts, figures, and statistics surrounding the disease has increased tenfold in the past few months, as people seek to separate fact from fiction in regards to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. And being a filter instead of a sponge has been trying at best -- just take one look at the misinformation being spread by various media sources, false advertisements, and, now, our federal government.

Throughout the duration of this pandemic, two organizations have been the backbone of fact-checking fallback plans: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). For most of us Americans, though, the CDC has been the primary source for all COVID-related information, including siphoning off the truth of PPE from the myths, updating ourselves on the spread of coronavirus and its consequential death toll, and all other questions we’ve had about the novel disease. In a time of such instability and lack of surety, the CDC has often been a trusted source and guiding light. Until now.

Last week on July 14, the Trump administration ordered that hospitals cease their mandatory reporting of new confirmed SARS-CoV-2 cases to the CDC. Previously, hospitals had been required to keep the CDC updated on new positive coronavirus tests, so as to provide accurate information not only to the public, but to researchers, scientists, and health departments, helping to both understand and track the spread of COVID via the use of contact tracing, which ensured that those who had unknowingly come into contact with infected persons were able to get tested before infecting others, and to know that they may need to seek medical help post-infection, should it become serious. Reportage to health officials was not merely an experiment in journalism; it was truly life-or-death, and was an essential protective measure -- one of the only substantial measures we’ve had in place in the face of a global epidemic that America has not yet even begun to face in totality, let alone from which recover.

In fact, America’s situation is perhaps more dire than is common to popular thought. While many are refusing to take precautions such as wearing face masks, respirators, or face shields, thinking that since many state-mandated restrictions were previously lifted (and many since reimplemented), that we are over the peak of the disease, and thus through the woods. But victims of popular belief couldn’t be more wrong. Cases have been on the rise, consequently causing an uptick in deaths and a resurgence of protective measures. But people no longer seem to be taking these re-implementations seriously, and that includes Trump.

Though America now leads the world for total number of cases, and falls into the top 10 countries for death rates when adjusted by deaths per million people, Trump has claimed that the United States has the “Number one low mortality fatality rates.” Additionally, Trump has demanded a roll back in testing rates, using the logic of fewer tests meaning fewer positive cases, thus improving America’s global virus statistics. In reality, though U.S. testing has ramped up by about 37%, our positive testing rate has amped up by 194%. That means that by performing just over a third as many tests as previous, we’ve had nearly three times the number of confirmations, thus illustrating that the outbreak and spreading rates in America are not only pervasive, but also ever-increasing.

Now that the CDC is no longer the primary destination for COVID-19 patient information, the Department of Health and Human Services will be collecting daily reports of all coronavirus information, including the number of new cases, pertinent intel concerning medical supplies and shortages, recovery rates, and other vital information for tracking the virus’s spread. However, unlike the CDC, the department’s numbers, figures, and statistics are not open to the public, and health experts fear that information will now become occluded from the public eye, falsified, and/or politicized so as to improve perceptions of America’s response to coronavirus. Additionally, besides its effect on public knowledge and transparency in regards to the virus, the shift of information and its source may impact the work of researchers, epidemiologists, and modelers, who are working to create solutions and predict the virus’s impacts and spread. Without trustworthy, visible information, their work will not be accurate and, therefore, may not be usable as we work to fight the virus. Not only will testing information now be collected and controlled by a different entity; allocation of PPE and remdesivir, a new drug found to be effective in the treatment of SARS-CoV-2, will also now be at the discretion of the Department of Health and Human Services, which could have wildly profound impacts on the healthcare system and those being treated for COVID-19.

Though this may seem to be a harmless data collection shift, its consequences could very well be dire. Without accurate figures, we are fighting in the dark, and may well now be divided as the coronavirus now turns into the newest political weapon in parties’ arsenal. In the age of information, hiding it becomes the greatest strategic play. Ignorance may very well become deadly.

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