After weeks of lawmakers, nonprofits and the public calling for better COVID-19 data and criticizing the state’s lack of transparency, the Hawaii Department of Health finally announced some new data on Monday.
But much of the new data is not actually new.
The additions to the state’s public dashboard on COVID-19 include new cases per week by age group, and race, gender and age breakdowns of COVID-19 cases. Some of that, such as data on the gender and ethnicity of people who have died, is new to the dashboard. But others, including the age and racial breakdowns of cases, are the same data already available simply analyzed and packaged in a different way.
For example, age breakdowns were previously available on the dashboard — the department is just breaking down the age groups differently now. The new weekly cases by age group also recycles existing data to show a trend.
“It’s not clear what the strategy is here,” said Nick Redding, executive director of the Hawaii Data Collaborative.
People asked for more data, so it seems like the health department went and created a few more tables and charts with whatever they had to appease them, he said.
“It misses the point, which is to maximize transparency,” he said.
On Aug. 5, Health Director Bruce Anderson announced that DOH would begin releasing new metrics to help the state better track and manage the disease with a higher degree of accountability.
The data Monday was the first of those releases to be put on the public data dashboard, but it did not include what many have been hoping to see the most — detailed information on contact tracing and testing.
“It leaves a lot to be desired,” Redding said, adding that the state has added a few new data points, which he does want to give them credit for.
Asked to clarify which of the data were new, the Hawaii COVID-19 Joint Information Center sent the following:
Technically. We think it looks more like this:
Some of the additions are helpful. The new breakdowns in age groups brought some new information to light.
“It’s incremental, but it’s not transformational,” Redding said. “Incremental change is not what’s called for. Transformational change is. We need to fundamentally rethink how we’re reporting and collecting data” when it comes to COVID-19, he added.
The enhanced figures and charts announced Monday would help reinforce key public health messages infectious disease experts have been trying to communicate for months, the health department said in a news release.
Hawaii State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said in the release that data suggest the bulk of COVID-19 transmission is happening among the 18- to 29-year-old category, but that younger people are hospitalized and dying at a lower rate.
“So they’re not getting very sick, and they’re spreading a lot of the infection,” she said.
Data also showed Pacific Islanders have the highest percentage of COVID-19 cases in the state, Park said in the news release. But Civil Beat and others have already reported on that. The new numbers the state published on the dashboard regarding deaths broken down by race now shows they also have the highest death rate.
“Gathering data on COVID-19, assimilating it, and reporting it to people in easily understood terms has been one of the many challenges that have faced public health experts and educators across the country,” the health department also said.
There should be more data coming soon, though. It’s just not clear when. The COVID-19 Joint Information Center did not respond to Civil Beat’s inquiry about when additional data will be released next.
Hawaii’s dashboard does not do a great job of serving the purpose of a public-facing information portal and the new additions didn’t do much to help make it better, Redding said.
It’s supposed to be like the dashboard of your car, displaying the most pertinent information in a digestible, visible and sensible way that helps the user make the best decisions, he said.
Like a car dashboard should have a speedometer, a fuel gauge and a check engine light, Redding said an effective COVID-19 public dashboard should have information that explains the current situation — including case counts, data on contact tracing, how well that’s going, and various elements of testing.
“At this point, I feel like there’s enough information out there to know what the critical data points are,” he said.
For instance, Prevent Epidemics, the research team of the national public health organization, Resolve to Save Lives, came up with a list of 15 essential indicators that states should be reporting.
There are many experts in the broader community who can help state officials make data sharing much more efficient and effective, Redding said. They’ve just got to be willing to let them help.
“There are willing partners who are ready to help,” he said.
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