1 year later: How COVID-19 data issues have persisted since beginning of pandemic

Jackie Drees - Print  | 

One year since the U.S. reported its first known coronavirus case, some experts still consider COVID-19 data reporting to be somewhat of a "mess," The Wall Street Journal reports.

Testing remains uneven across states and communities, and case counts and death tallies are considered to be too low and incomplete, according to the Jan. 22 report. 

"A lot of the reason we have struggled in the U.S. is because we have such a diffuse approach to healthcare,” said Beth Blauer, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Centers for Civic Impact. "It has led to states implementing things pretty differently, and it has made it very difficult to create an apples-to-apples comparison." 

Seven details: 

1. Some researchers estimate that for every documented COVID-19 case, there are at least two undetected infections; and the number of deaths occurring in 2020 suggests the virus may have killed more people than the data shows, according to the publication's analyses. 

2. By the end of 2020, almost 346,000 deaths in the U.S. had been attributed to COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. However, the CDC estimated that 450,000 excess deaths occurred that year. 

"That’s 450,000 more than we would have in a normal year," Robert Anderson, PhD, chief of the mortality-statistics branch of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told the publication. "We already know we had well over 300,000 deaths due to Covid-19. Of the other group, probably 100,000 can be attributed to the pandemic but not necessarily to the virus." 

3. The first data reporting hurdle in the U.S. was testing, which initially was severely limited. Once tests became more widely available, they were still administered inconsistently and reported differently across jurisdictions. 

4. Some testing sites only record antibody tests performed by labs, while others have also counted less-sensitive antigen tests performed outside of labs. 

5. States are still using different methods and metrics to calculate positivity rates; since some people have been tested multiple times, it has raised questions about whether rates should be based on the number of tests administered or the number of individuals tested. 

6. Standardization is still also an issue with state counts, as some states report only confirmed cases while others record probable cases. Standardized reporting is necessary to provide consistent case identification and classification, according to the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. 

7. Causes of death listed on death certificates will help researchers discern how many people actually died of the virus, but they will still need to sort through cases, for example, where someone died of a stroke or heart attack or a stroke or heart attack caused by the virus. 


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