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COVID data fall short of what is needed

Gov. Kate Brown has announced strict criteria that must be met before schools can resume in-person instruction, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Oregon health officials are nowhere near ready to provide the level of information needed to assess the risk of reopening classrooms.

State officials say that before schools can reopen, the county must have no more than 10 new cases per 100,000 population for three straight weeks, and the positive-test rate must be at or below 5% for three weeks. The statewide rate must also stay at or below 5% for three weeks before any schools can reopen. But the most recent weekly data available on the county Health Department’s website is for the week of July 6.

At that point, the county had not met the three-week benchmark, because there were 48 new cases the week of June 29 — more than double the 10-per-100,000 limit. What’s happened in the three weeks since then? We don’t know.

The state’s data reporting is little better. On Wednesday, the Oregon Health Authority’s website was still showing data for the week ending June 19, reported June 22.

Daily reports are available, but anyone wanting to know the weekly totals has to do the math themselves. As for the rate of positive tests, the most recent data for the state as a whole was dated July 20.

The time from exposure to the onset of symptoms ranges from two to 14 days — assuming symptoms develop at all. So infections could be increasing rapidly, but that information is not readily apparent from visiting either the county or the state websites.

Oregon is not alone in failing to provide data fast enough to be useful. And the delay in posting new figures is only part of the problem.

Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who led the agency during the Ebola outbreak, says all states must report far more detailed data more rapidly if the country is ever to get a handle on this epidemic. No state is.

States should be reporting not just the number of new cases each day, but how many of those were isolated within 48 hours, Frieden said last week in an op-ed in the New York Times. And that’s just the beginning.

Frieden is working with a nonprofit organization, Resolve to Save Lives, in coordination with a coalition of national, state and academic partners. Researchers for the effort recently retrieved all the information they could find from official websites in all 50 states.

“Not a single state published turnaround time for testing, nor how promptly patients are isolated, nor the proportion of cases diagnosed among people who had contact with a COVID-19 patient,” Frieden wrote.

Oregon was singled out for some praise, however.

“Only two states — Oregon and Virginia — even reported information on whether patients were interviewed promptly for contact tracing. Indicators such as these are essential to know how well we are fighting the virus so that we can do better.”

Resolve to Save Lives and its partners have developed a list of 15 indicators that all states should be reporting. Among them:

The number of new confirmed and probable cases, with a seven-day moving average.

The percentage of new cases linked to a known case.

The turnaround time for test results. Ideally, this should be an average of 48 hours, with a goal of ramping that up to 24 hours.

Reports of health care workers infected every week, along with reports on cases in nursing homes, homeless shelters, jails and meatpacking facilities.

Frieden places the responsibility for this with the federal government, which he says should release the information it has and establish stronger national standards for information at the state level. In addition, more testing supplies must be provided to all states, not just those with the worst outbreaks.

Only with better data can we start to take control of this pandemic as other nations of the world have done, and not let it take control of us.

Only then will parents feel safe sending their children back to school.