There are few stories Civil Beat publishes that get more views — or elicit more questions — than our daily COVID-19 tracker.

We launched the tracker back in May, a few months after COVID-19 was first detected in the state. We’ve made a few modifications since then, but the basic gist is the same: Every day at noon, we take data posted by the state and use it to update graphics showing things like the number of cases on each island and the percentage of COVID-19 tests in the last week that have come back positive.

We’ve contemplated ending the virus tracker — particularly in months where the numbers are relatively stable and it seems like each daily update is the same — but it’s clear that people remain intensely interested in data about COVID-19 in the islands.

So here’s a little primer on why we publish the daily tracker, how we select what data to put in it — and why it’s so hard to get more data to include.

What Data Is Helpful?

In the early days of the pandemic, we were writing frequent stories about new cases.

As the state moved from having a few cases associated with travel to cases every day and then community spread, it no longer made sense to report on cases in the same way. Unless there is a big spike or drop in cases, the numbers themselves are no longer big news, but we still feel it is a public service to provide the data.

To make things easier for reporters and consistent for our readers, Civil Beat decided to provide daily updates of COVID-19 data in a series of graphics. But what information did people need?

The most obvious numbers to report each day are new cases and fatalities.

Civil Beat posts the daily case counts by island every day at noon. Civil Beat

People have compared tracking daily virus counts to focusing on a small fire in the corner of the room when the roof of your house is aflame — and there’s some validity to that. Daily case counts aren’t as helpful as detailed information about where cases are being spread and how, the percentage of tests that come back positive, and hospitalization rates.

However, even if there’s a bigger fire raging outside your house, it’s natural to still care about the fire in the corner of the room you are in. So, we keep reporting the daily case numbers.

We also wanted to provide some context for those case numbers. How did Hawaii compare to other states? Were our numbers good or bad by comparison? To help get to that, we turned to open-source graphics from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center that show the number of cases nationally and globally.

Since daily case counts can fluctuate wildly, we decided to contextualize the numbers by providing a running 7-day average of the new cases.

The state’s positivity rate — the percentage of tests that come back positive — wasn’t something people were looking at much in the early days of the pandemic. When the U.S. surgeon general came to Hawaii this summer, in part because of how bad our positivity rate was, we added that to the tracker.

Challenges With Getting Data

Some data that people ask us for just isn’t available when we publish the tracker. Earlier in the pandemic, the state was reporting both the number of people tested for COVID-19 and the number of tests conducted for COVID-19 — but those numbers came out at different times. We would have preferred to include the number of people tested for COVID-19 in our tracker, but decided to go with the total number of tests since that was the number that was released at the same time as the daily case counts.

Dealing with data from the health department has been challenging, to say the least. There have been bigger frustrations, like spending months pushing for the state to release more data on case clusters and contact tracing. But there are also challenges just in putting out the daily graphics.

The state has changed how and when it provides information multiple times in the last year. Most of the changes to its data dashboard have been positive, and the state is sharing much more data than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. But some of the changes have also been difficult to keep up with for the tracker. For example, switching how positivity rates and active cases are calculated.

Vice Admiral Jerome Adams US Surgeon General and Mayor Kirk Caldwell during COVID-19 surge testing held at Leeward Community College. August 26, 2020
People in Hawaii started paying closer attention to positivity rates after U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams visited the state in August and voiced concern about the percentage of people in Hawaii testing positive for the coronavirus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Until a few months ago, the state updated the cumulative number of infections in each island every day, but didn’t break out how many cases were new that day. That meant we had to take the new number for each island and subtract the number we’d put in our graphic the previous day. That would have been an easy calculation, but the state often reassigns cases from one island to another, so it wasn’t always a simple matter of subtracting one number from another.

Reporting lags provide another level of complication.

Right now there’s a 36-hour reporting lag between when labs send data to the health department and when the department publishes its daily numbers. That means cases reported on Sunday are actually from data sent to the state on Friday. County agencies will sometimes post more up to date information, but for consistency, we stick with the state’s numbers. There have been some similar challenges with fatalities. Notably, when Hawaii County reported a number of deaths that the state didn’t add to its official count for months.

There is some data we’d like to include, but have decided it’s not practical for us to do so — at least not as a daily graphic.

Data about case clusters is provided now by the health department once a week, but the details are often murky. We look at this data and include new details when pertinent, but don’t find it reliable enough to be useful as a regular feature.

Another common reader request has been to have a graphic with the number of vaccinations administered. The state does provide vaccination data, but only Monday through Friday. We share that information when it’s available, but don’t plan to put it in a graphic.

We’re looking forward to a day when COVID-19 cases are so rare that their appearance merits a news story on its own. Until then, we will keep updating the tracker. And we will keep listening to your feedback about the data you want and need to navigate this difficult time.

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