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How Bad Is the COVID-19 Surge? New Data Reporting Makes It Hard to Say

Credit: University of Georgia

Available Georgia Department of Public Health data suggests that the latest surge in COVID-19 cases has reached its peak, but many people are likely completely unaware. Just as cases were surging this winter, data that was previously used as a reliable gauge of community viral spread changed. Thus, those vulnerable populations that are still very much concerned about getting COVID-19 were left in the dark.

In mid-January, the Georgia Geospatial Dashboard—a reliable resource that provided daily regional data on ICU bed availability and the number of COVID-19 hospital admissions—ceased operation. The sunset of this dashboard came as a surprise even to public health experts who had helped create and update these resources.

Amber Schmidtke, a public health expert who has been monitoring the pandemic in Georgia since the beginning, was surprised by the latest changes and noted as much in her Jan. 16 newsletter update. “Last week, I talked about how [important] hospitalization data and test positivity data were the best metrics we had right now to understand what was happening with the pandemic,” she said. “This week, Georgia turned out the lights on hospitalization data.”

The decision to shut down the dashboard was a result of changes in hospital reporting rules, according to DPH Communication Director Nancy Nydam. “The Georgia dashboard, which was not a DPH dashboard or managed by DPH, is no longer available” she said in response to Flagpole’s inquiry. “In the weeks before the dashboard was taken down, only about 5% of hospitals in Georgia were reporting—the large hospitals had already started reporting to [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]—so the data was incomplete and not an accurate reflection of hospital census and capacity in Georgia.”

For Schmidtke, the timing was upsetting. “Evidently, reporting requirements from hospitals are changing, which would impact the quality of the data that would otherwise be uploaded to these dashboards. Truth be told, we’d had problems with the dashboards at different points in time, and I’d started to wonder if one or more hospital regions were no longer reporting data at all anymore because their data didn’t make sense,” she said. “… I remember being pretty upset to hear that the dashboards were coming down during a surge that hadn’t yet peaked. Again, if hospitalization data are one of our best barometers of the state of the pandemic, why not wait until the surge begins to recede?”

In place of this dashboard, the website now refers users to the HHS Protect Public Data Hub, which is based on the data provided in the weekly HHS Community Profile Report. Thus, the formerly daily data will now only be available weekly. Furthermore, the data on HHS’s data website is no longer available by Georgia hospital region and doesn’t log the data over time. It also doesn’t include information on ventilator usage.

Local wastewater reporting has changed as well. Samples were previously gathered twice a week by UGA professor Erin Lipp’s lab and available on her website each Friday. Now, this endeavor has been transferred to the CDC/DPH wastewater project. As of press time, this data had not been updated yet on the CDC website, but DPH has provided updated data, despite several weeks being backdated and a pause for at least two weeks. 

The DPH update showed that viral levels have increased incrementally in recent weeks, but the report does not provide enough methodology information to help viewers understand this data week-to-week or in comparison to historical data. For now, however, it’s easy to see that viral levels have increased in recent weeks locally, and out of 12 cities, Athens has the third highest rate of viral spread. 

Luckily, the variants that have been circulating have been less severe than those earlier in the pandemic. The virus is still a danger, though. In the past month, four Athens residents have died from COVID-19, and an average of 15 a week have been hospitalized. The seven-day moving average of new daily cases declined last week to 10.1, down from 15.4 the previous week, and it seems as though the latest wave is on its way out, alongside a decrease in flu rates. On the other hand, test positivity for Clarke County, which should remain below 5% as an indicator that we are testing enough to find viral spread, is at 17 percent%, and DPH ranks Clarke County as a high transmission community. As the FDA’s recommendation on Jan. 27 for a yearly vaccination (much like flu shots) highlighted, however, the U.S. has turned the corner from pandemic to endemic. 

While the change in availability of data sources may not be of great concern to the average person, it’s certainly still a very big deal to immunocompromised populations, notes Schmidtke.

“I’m often asked if I think that COVID-19 is a big deal anymore. I suppose it depends on what matters to the person who is asking,” said Schmidtke. “When the vaccines were developed, it was to protect against severe consequences of COVID-19 infection, including hospitalization and death. Using this yardstick, yeah, the pandemic is not that big of a deal anymore. In fact, using this yardstick, I can’t even be that mad at Georgia DPH for discontinuing their daily hospitalization data reporting. But it is still a very scary thing to be immunocompromised, especially when we have fewer treatment options with respect to monoclonal antibodies. For this population, it remains a very big deal.”