From very early in the COVID-19 outbreak, Gov. Brad Little and Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) Director Dave Jeppesen have attributed the decisions they are making about how to respond to the pandemic in Idaho to the latest scientific evidence available.
That scientific evidence is provided through the expertise of the public health staff at the department and at the local public health districts, but also largely from the data being generated from the outbreak and posted at https://coronavirus.idaho.gov/.
Epidemiologic data are collected from multiple sources, including people, clinics, labs, and hospitals. The completeness and timeliness of the information can vary drastically, depending on how the data are reported and who is reporting it.
Although Idaho is ahead of a lot of other states in our ability to accept electronic data from laboratories and clinical partners, it is not unusual for those records to have missing information. Data received from clinical and laboratory partners are considered preliminary. Information is verified during case investigations, which are often conducted over several days by epidemiologists, and information is gathered from healthcare providers and patients to complete the investigation.
Although this approach to verifying and collecting data to track disease and detect outbreaks is “business as usual” for epidemiologists, the varied nature of laboratory data can make it challenging to rely on that source to provide data in real-time.
Because of the unprecedented event of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials at DHW decided to prioritize timeliness over initial completeness of the data to make the information available as close to real-time as possible. Data are preliminary as they are received and can change over time as additional data are received, which may be confusing to people who are used to thinking of data as static and unchanging.
As clinical and laboratory data are verified and case investigations are conducted, it may be discovered that a person tested in Idaho is from another state or that a person with an address in one county might be a resident of another county. For these reasons, preliminary data posted to our website might change over time.
A probable case might be suddenly counted as a confirmed case once a lab test comes back as positive, or uncounted entirely because a negative lab result was received. We may not have race or ethnicity information one day, but we can add it the next.
While some of the data are preliminary, they are certainly not incorrect and the summaries posted to our website represent the best information we have at any point in time. We work constantly to complete that information, so ultimately we have the fullest picture possible of what’s happening. Our goal is to be transparent, including acknowledging that the response to the pandemic requires flexibility and openness to updated information.
We hope you can use the data to help shape your understanding in the same way Gov. Little and Director Jeppesen are using it to inform their decision-making. Big questions they weigh the answers to as they decide how and when to reopen the state include:
- Are we seeing signs that the transmission is increasing?
- Are we seeing signs that severe cases that require hospitalization are increasing?
- Are we seeing critical hospital capacity being used up?
We expect there to be bumps and blips in the data, but the value comes from what the data say overall and what it tells us about our capacity to prevent future cases and to provide healthcare for those who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or other communicable diseases.
And what it says is that we are still in a pandemic. Although right now our daily numbers of new cases are relatively low, we know the virus continues to circulate in our communities, and that eventually the number of cases will begin to rise again and likely will until we have a vaccine and a diagnostic treatment for COVID-19. We know that we all must continue to follow the protocols and stay home whenever possible, maintain 6 feet between yourself and others, and wear masks in public, and wash your hands often.
Dr. Kathryn Turner is the deputy state epidemiologist. Her team collects, analyzes, and uploads the data to the data dashboard at https://coronavirus.idaho.gov/.