After a slow start, Hawaii now has multiple governmental and private dashboards filled with data about COVID-19. However, important questions about contact tracing and other measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus remain unanswered.

The abundance in COVID-19 data sometimes even causes more confusion about which number is correct, or which metric is more relevant.

In the early stages of Hawaii’s battle with COVID-19, the Hawaii Department of Health did not release a lot of data beyond the basic case numbers, death counts and trends. Lawmakers, researchers, journalists and public health experts demanded more transparency, and the state responded.

“I think we’re seeing better quality data in terms of what DOH is producing,” said Thomas Lee, a Hawaii-based epidemiologist and co-chair of the Hawaii Applied Pandemic Modeling Work Group.

There’s also more to choose from in terms of where you can view the data. The health department now has two different data dashboards – one on the Hawaii COVID-19 website and another on the Disease Outbreak Control Division website.

Why two versions? Acting State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble says the former is supposed to give more of a daily snapshot, while the latter provides more in-depth analysis.

Numerous other organizations, including nonprofit groups and research teams based at the University of Hawaii, have their own COVID-19 data dashboards. Some were created to fill the data void before the state stepped up its game.

The new state COVID-19 data dashboard launched Nov. 2, replacing another dashboard that launched on Sept. 8. This one is managed by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Overall, we know more about the state of COVID-19 in Hawaii now compared to March or April, says Victoria Fan, a University of Hawaii health economist who worked on the state’s previous version of the dashboard.

New data exists about testing volume, mobility, mask usage and hospitalization. But the state is still missing some key data vital to fighting the virus, Fan said.

“Back in March, we had little understanding of contact tracing,” she said. “If we look at the situation today, we still have very little understanding of contact tracing.”

Data points, such as how many positive cases and contacts have been reached by contact tracers and how long it took to reach them, help measure the success of contact tracing, Fan said.

The health department now releases weekly cluster reports that provide some details about where the virus is spreading. Those reports include some information about contact tracing, but the data is not regularly published as part of the dashboard.

This is an example of the Department of Health’s cluster report.

Eleni Avendaño/Civil Beat

Kemble said the department has been asked about including detailed contact tracing data on the dashboard, but feels that using narratives to show how cases spread seems to be more effective than publishing raw data.

“We’re going to continue to look at ways that we can boil down the numbers,” she said.

The effectiveness of contact tracing is an especially important issue now as most other states are seeing a surge in cases.

“This is an inflection point for Hawaii,” Lee said.

The next few weeks are important for determining if allowing visitors to bypass quarantine starting on Oct. 15 had an impact on cases, Lee said.

The Hawaii Applied Pandemic Modeling Work Group has also incorporated reopening metrics on its website in addition to pandemic forecasting models to help the public understand how the phases of reopening are impacting the state, he said.

The next step would be to understand how many of the positive COVID-19 cases are driven by travel and returning residents, Lee said.

Source: Hawaii Department of Health

So, what about contact tracing?

Fan said we learned in July that the Department of Health did not have the capacity to do surge contact tracing. There was also the revelation in September that fax machines were being used to process reports.

A lot has changed since then. There’s new leadership – a new director, new acting state epidemiologist and a new head of the contact tracing program. Some portions of the program also have been transferred to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, the professor said.

But until more data about contact tracing becomes available, she said we simply won’t know how effective it is. “It’s all very valuable information to indicate how effective the public health response is,” she said.

Many Dashboards

Some of Hawaii's COVID-19 dashboards

It can be hard to keep up with all the different COVID-19 data dashboards in Hawaii these days.

 

Many groups and individuals display and visualize COVID-19 data in their own way. Some focus more on health; others include economic measures. Case counts and death tolls come from the same place — the Department of Health.

“They each serve different purposes with different levels of detail and in some cases different sources of data,” Fan said. “For the general public, however, it can be confusing to have multiple dashboards.”

Hawaii Data Collaborative was a pioneer during the pandemic with one of the first nongovernmental data dashboards to use sourcing from outside providers to show the impact of the virus on the community.

Ultimately, all the various creators of these pandemic data dashboards, maps, models and apps set out to boost the community’s collective understanding of the disease.

“We’re learning more and more about the disease every day,” Lee said. “We’re in a much better position in terms of data flow, synchronization and consolidation.”

However, he acknowledged that the different data delivery methods and sheer volume may create some confusion.

As the virus evolves and changes, so must the data and its handlers.  “We’re not there yet,” Lee said.

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