'We're fighting COVID one-handed': 2 Mass General physicians on the need to strengthen data systems 

While the U.S. continues its widespread COVID-19 vaccination effort, there is still an urgent need to track virus transmission and strengthen national public health data systems to contain the spread, according to Louise Ivers, MD, and Wilfredo Matias, MD.

In a Jan. 6 op-ed for Boston radio station WBUR, Dr. Ivers, who serves as executive director at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health, and Dr. Matias, a global health fellow at Mass General, called out fundamental weaknesses in the country's public health data systems, which are unable to capture accurate data on where, why and how the virus spreads in real time, they wrote.

"This type of analysis of how outbreaks are happening locally has critical implications for local health officials — it helps them fine-tune their interventions," Drs. Ivers and Matias wrote. "And yet, this key information is rarely available to local implementers in actionable reports in [Massachusetts] because our public health data infrastructure was never designed to capture it and has not been appropriately upgraded to respond to it."

State health boards use the Massachusetts Virtual Epidemiologic Network, known as MAVEN, to gather case details such as age, gender and race to track epidemic disease. The information from MAVEN is compiled and shared in daily statewide reports and weekly city-level reports, which Drs. Ivers and Matias said is too infrequent and late to be able to take any actions.

Seven months after the pandemic started, Massachusetts did begin reporting more granular data but only shared aggregate data for the whole state, according to the report.

Data systems should be able to generate information that reflects the unique data needs of the local community, so that officials can take specific actions tailored to best meet the needs of their communities. Drs. Ivers and Matias wrote that these systems should be able to "alert on transmission hotspots in real-time, so that we don't have to wait over a week to see that cases are increasing in gyms," and they "should be integrated between central command and local response, removing the duplication of effort that parallel systems often cause now."

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