On Tuesday, the Hawaii Department of Health shared what seemed like incredibly good news: the state had recorded only 17 new COVID-19 infections — the lowest number of daily cases reported in Hawaii in more than six months.
The problem? The number was inaccurate.
Hours after posting the data, the department sent out a press release saying that the numbers were artificially low because of a laboratory reporting error. The department did not specify what caused the error or how many days would be impacted — only that we would likely see a temporary spike after the problem was fixed.
In Civil Beat’s newsroom, the error was a tipping point for something we have long been considering: ending our daily virus tracker.
After nearly a year of fastidiously reporting the number of new COVID-19 infections every day, the time has come for us to do something different. Moving forward, we will be posting a story every Friday that includes the case numbers from the past week and provides — we hope — more useful context to readers about what those numbers mean.
As a Department of Health spokesperson pointed out after the laboratory reporting error, daily case numbers actually tell us very little about what’s happening with COVID-19 in Hawaii.
Numbers on a single day can spike or drop for a variety of reasons. Weekly averages, the percentage of tests that come back positive, how many tests are being done, where people are contracting the virus — these are all statistics that give us more clarity on what’s happening in the state.
And then there’s the fact that the daily case numbers aren’t even reflective of what was reported that day. Several months ago, the health department implemented a 36-hour reporting lag to help with data accuracy. So the cases that we report on Monday actually represent case information uploaded to the state on Saturday.
There’s one more reason we’re discontinuing the tracker.
When Civil Beat launched its virus tracker, there were few places to easily view detailed data about COVID-19. There are now nearly a dozen COVID-19 data dashboards in Hawaii. Most news organizations in the state post the daily numbers as well.
As a small newsroom, we have to constantly weigh the benefit of doing a news story against the effort it will take to produce that story. Simply put, it’s not possible for us to cover everything happening in Hawaii. Instead, we try to look for places where our efforts won’t duplicate what’s already out there. What can we bring to the table? What can we do to further the conversation? At this point, it’s clear that posting daily COVID-19 numbers isn’t bringing new clarity to people in the pandemic.
We will continue to check the health department’s COVID-19 numbers every day. If there’s a big spike or drop, we will try to get to the bottom of it and post a story as needed. And of course, if cases start spiking again we may decide to resurrect the tracker.
Have thoughts on what COVID-19 data and coverage you would find most helpful? Email us at email@example.com or share a comment below. We’re constantly reevaluating our coverage during the pandemic and we read every email.
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