How to better understand COVID-19 data, per 3 hospital CIOs

Many Americans report being confused by the surplus of COVID-19 data being disseminated, while lags in data reporting and drastic fluctuations can lead to skepticism about the statistics' meaning and weight.

Below, three hospital CIOs share what they think we should keep in mind as we try to understand COVID-19 data.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Zafar Chaudry, MD, senior vice president and CIO, Seattle Children's: Trying to comprehend COVID-19 data is more complex than it might seem. Typically any data published is taken by people as actual fact, but the data we have right now is full of caveats. For example, COVID-19 data in daily reports is based on confirmed cases with a positive test; however, testing is still limited so it is probable that suspected cases are also tallied. Without vigorous and all-inclusive testing, we can't confirm every COVID-19 infection that exists. 

Also, for those people who have symptoms that sound like COVID-19, many can’t get a test and as such they aren't necessarily counted into the data. This means that the case data may only represent a fraction of the total cases. This will also impact the ability to accurately calculate fatality rates as these are linked to having quality case data. 

Other considerations include looking at data from different countries because the way they are collecting COVID-19 data may be unreliable by design in everything from the way data is collected, to access and quality of care, to the tests themselves. Modelling disease or forecasting it is also more difficult if data is incomplete. I'd suggest that people look at the published data with a level of cynicism — make sure you look at the fine print, the assumptions that are made and the caveats as to how the data is calculated and represented.

Keith Perry, senior vice president and CIO, Carilion Clinic (Roanoke, Va.): I think everyone is being inundated with information about COVID-19. Number of cases vs. number of infections, doses of vaccine available vs. doses of vaccine administered, etc. I think we all agree we are awash with statistics. It's even more confusing when these statistics vary by state or federal agency. I think we will get to more stabilized information as federal and state agencies become more closely aligned and coordinated in their data and reporting.

Confusion and distrust is normal in these types of situations. I would encourage everyone to extend some grace and know that we are all in this together. Coordinating data and reporting on a global scale is a monumental undertaking. It will take some time to synthesize and normalize the data so that it becomes more clear and easily understood. The fact that we aren’t there yet should be attributed more to the complexity of the task at hand than theories of a desire to misrepresent or mislead.

Joel Klein, MD, senior vice president and CIO, University of Maryland Medical System (Baltimore, Md.): The most important thing is still the most important thing: this is a disease that spreads easily and can kill you, and with nearly 20 million people vaccinated, we have a great picture that the vaccine is safe and effective. This is our way out of this. 

We are watching vaccine supply, distribution and administration rates, along with how effectively we are reaching our state’s targeted populations as the rollout progresses. We are paying close attention to racial equity, high risk populations and hospitalized patients. We are constantly refining how we use technology to empower our community to sign up and get vaccinated. At the end of the day, the most important number is how many vaccines we get into how many people as fairly and safely as possible.


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