RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — You’re going to see fewer COVID-19 numbers from the state soon — and you’ll see them less often.
State leaders cite the evolution of a pandemic moving into its third year as the driving force behind their decision to both remove some numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services dashboard and to update the ones that will remain on a weekly basis after those updates have come on most weekdays for the past year.
RTI International epidemiologist Dr. Pia MacDonald called the rolling back of some data a disappointment.
“It’s a little bit like giving a child candy and then taking it away and giving the child a carrot, from the epidemiologist perspective,” she said.
But other public health experts say it’s a reasonable transition, even it sounds counterintuitive that, when it comes to some numbers, less could wind up being more.
“This to me is not a change in how we are interpreting the data or how it’s being collected or how it’s being reported,” said Dr. Erica Pettigrew, a family practice physician and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “It’s just figuring out which metrics make the most sense at this point in time in the pandemic.”
The state is shifting its focus to seven metrics — some more familiar and conventional than others — and starting March 23, NCDHHS will update those numbers once a week.
“Data will continue to drive our response as it has through the entire pandemic,” NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley said. “But some metrics no longer measure the moment.”
Going forward, the focus will be on these seven numbers:
- COVID levels in wastewater
- Emergency-department visits due to COVID-like symptoms
- Hospital admissions
- Case counts
- Rates of booster doses of vaccine
- Levels of new variants in the state
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 community levels
“The seven that they have, I do think, act as bellwethers for things starting to trend up,” Pettigrew said.
But the ones on the way out include those related to contact tracing, and to testing — chiefly, the raw test counts and the rate at which they are found to be positive.
That’s no surprise: CBS 17 News reported weeks ago that it made sense to phase out the percent positive because of the prevalence of at-home tests that don’t factor into that number.
“Several months ago, when at-home tests became more available, it was no longer as meaningful of a metric,” Pettigrew said.
While the change in which numbers matter — and when they’ll be updated — might seem like a big deal only to the people who track them consistently, they do have implications for everyone.
“I don’t want people to think that there’s any sort of shift in anyone playing with the numbers. Because it’s not about that,” she said. “It’s about which numbers are most important and how to report them, how frequently we need them.”
Could updating them weekly — as opposed to every weekday — leave us vulnerable to missing something, such as the early stages of another surge?
MacDonald says it’s not likely because the move closer to an endemic means “I don’t think that things will be changing as rapidly.
“Going to weekly is probably a good idea in terms of conserving resources at the state health department,” she said.
Pettigrew agrees, pointing to the rise in “stealth omicron” cases overseas and the presence of that subvariant in the U.S. as something to monitor — with the state able to resume daily updates if they’re needed.
“The name of the game in the pandemic has been to be nimble,” she said. “We need to be responsive. We need to react quickly to think that change, and so we may be in a different place in two months and perhaps the state will reassess at that time.”
CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.