New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during the daily media briefing at the Office of the Governor of the State of New York on July 23, 2020 in New York City. (Jeenah Moon / Getty Images)

7 ways COVID-19 data efforts have failed

An imperfect understanding of the ongoing health crisis has continually confounded the efforts of the world’s public health systems and governments to rally an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A digital landscape flooded with misinformation and disinformation has sown distrust among the public, further complicating matters for governments — especially states — that depend on widespread cooperation to accomplish their public health goals. According to a Pew Research Center survey last July, one-quarter of Americans believed in an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that the coronavirus outbreak had been planned by a group of powerful elites. In more recent surveys, between 15% and 29% of health care workers said they would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, citing concerns with efficacy or potential side effects.

But even a thorough and reliable data set on basic metrics, such as who is becoming infected and who is receiving vaccinations, is a requisite baseline for understanding the disease that continues to escape capture. And governments’ mistakes during the pandemic, though often legitimate, risk eroding even further the trust of an already skeptical public worn down by political rhetoric, clashing public health directives and fatigue one year into the crisis.

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1. States mishandled their testing data

Officials in Texas, Virginia and Vermont admitted last spring they’d been combining the figures for COVID-19 infection tests and COVID-19 antibody tests, leading to statistics that misled the public into believing those states were doing more testing for active cases than they actually were. Though some accused officials of fudging their numbers for political advantage, the mistake was widely accepted as honest, but inconvenient, one born out of ignorance toward which types of data are useful to inform decisions about public health and the economy.

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2. Florida made things personal

What began as the simple firing of a state employee who “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination” has spiraled into a personal war between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Rebekah Jones, a former state geospatial data employee who’s become something of a martyr for a segment of the open-data movement. Since being fired for what she said was her refusal to alter coronavirus statistics to support DeSantis’ desire to reopen more of the Florida economy, Jones has become a national figure, creating a dashboard that competes with the state’s official COVID-19 website. She continues to defend herself vehemently as the state has pursued a criminal investigation against her, which included a police raid of her home in December and Jones turning herself in for arrest last month.

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3. Iowa struggles with transparency

While some foreign governments have been lauded for how they’ve communicated about the pandemic —  such as Finland, which built upon a 2014 anti-disinformation initiative —  politics has infiltrated nearly every level of the United States’ pandemic response.

In Iowa, this meant embracing a policy in which COVID-19 outbreaks in its meatpacking plants and other businesses would only be reported if members of the media explicitly asked about them, despite meatpacking plant infections acting as a valuable early indicator of outbreaks. Iowa’s struggles with disclosing complete information have continued into 2021, with media outlets pointing out earlier this week that its vaccine provider portal incorrectly showed that 20 of its counties have no providers at all. The Iowa Department of Public Health called this a technical error.

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4. New York underreported nursing home deaths

New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report last month finding more than 3,800 additional nursing home residents died from COVID-19 than reported by the state’s health department. James called those death rates, which were undercounted by as much as 50%, “alarming” and pushed New York to “offer transparency that the public deserves.” One of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top aides reportedly told the New York Times that state officials lied about the numbers last year because they feared an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department under then-President Donald Trump.

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5. Federal and state governments have struggled to coordinate

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last December asked states to sign agreements that they would share personal information in some of their COVID-19 registries, some states, including New York, pushed back. Cuomo said it was another example of the federal government using local data “to deport people,” but federal health officials said the data was “critically necessary” to ensure people who traveled across state lines received their second dose of the vaccine and to compare vaccine efficacy between demographic groups.

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6. Reliable demographic data remains elusive

There have been several high-profile efforts to create nationwide COVID-19 data banks, but the United States’ data-collection efforts remain scattershot. One major gap is enough demographic data to understand how various populations are responding to the vaccine and to the virus itself. As of Feb. 5, the CDC reported that race and ethnicity data was only available for 52% of people who’d been vaccinated since December.

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