Answered questions, HHS updates
Readers asked COVID-19 questions; I answered. Plus: updates on HHS data, antigen tests, and new data sources.
Welcome to this special evening edition of the COVID-19 Data Dispatch!
Here, I’m recapping the Q&A thread from this afternoon and sending out a few additional resources and news items. Read on for updates on the HHS and antigen tests, as well as resources for the coming holiday season.
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Answering your COVID-19 questions
Thank you to everyone who asked questions in the thread today. I appreciated the chance to hear about your current COVID-19 concerns, and I got a few ideas for future issue topics. I hope that my answers were useful.
Here’s one question which I wanted to broadcast to everyone:
Ross asked: Hi Betsy—long time reader, first time asker. Have we seen significant spikes in COVID in connection with national holidays, or are spikes largely attributable to other factors? Should we be expecting a Thanksgiving spike? What about an election protest spike?
My response: Thanks Ross, that's a good question! First of all, I need to clarify that it's really hard to find a causal association between case spikes and specific events in the U.S., because our contact tracing apparatus simply isn't up to it in most places. We can't conclusively find out how many people were infected at a given event or location unless we can test all of them and get those test results to a central location and adjust for confounding factors, like other events that people attended/traveling they did. There have been a few scientific studies that look for these associations (Stanford University researchers recently published a paper about Trump rallies, for example) but largely it is difficult to make these conclusions as events are ongoing.
That being said, the COVID Tracking Project has noted case spikes in the South after Memorial Day, which occurred when many states were loosening lockdown orders. It's important to note here that these kinds of case spikes are usually delayed; it takes a couple of weeks for people to notice symptoms and get tested (causing cases to spike), and then another week or two for hospitalizations to spike, and then another week or two after that for deaths to spike. (Caroline Chen has explained this lag for ProPublica.) But to answer your question of whether experts are expecting a Thanksgiving spike: yes, they definitely are. Here's Fauci talking about it, from a couple of weeks ago.
And as for protests—this is also difficult to say for sure, as it is difficult to even estimate how many people attend a protest, let alone to test and contact trace them all. But, to my knowledge, no protest has been a superspreader event so far. Health experts cite the fact that protests are usually outside and have high mask compliance as a possible reason why they have not proven to be as risky as, say, Trump rallies.
And one more:
Martha asked: Hi Betsy, In this time of pandemic fatigue, I am interested in rankings of reasonable activities to keep some economic sectors going without becoming part of the problem (i.e. infected). What are your favorite (or a favorite) source that ranks activities? Do you know of any detailed studies that gets at nuances (with my pod vs. with people not in my pod)?
My response: Maryn McKenna has actually written a great story about COVID-19 risk charts, including the strengths and weaknesses of a couple of widely-cited resources. It has been a couple of months since this story, though, and since then, more interactive resources have popped up. One that I like is the microCOVID project, which estimates your risk based on your location, the number of people you'll be seeing, mask types, and more. Another resource, which I've cited in the newsletter before, is Georgia Tech's COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool. This tool is simpler, but it gets very precise about the risk levels in your state and county.
I haven't seen specific studies that get at the nuances of risk levels inside/outside of a pod, largely because I think this is a hard thing for epidemiologists to track. (America! Bad at contact tracing!) But I will say that it is important for you to be clear and realistic about who is in your pod. For example, I live with three roommates in Brooklyn. I sometimes visit my sister, who lives in Manhattan. Two of my roommates are commuting to their respective offices on reduced schedules. So, if one of my sister's roommates tests positive for COVID-19, that means that, depending on the timing, I, and all of my roommates, and all of my roommates' coworkers should consider that we may have been exposed. The bigger your pod, the more regular testing can help assuage these types of concerns.
My comment sections are always open for questions about the week’s issue. Or, if you would like to use a less public platform, you can hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources and updates
Much as I’d like to end the issue here, the world of COVID-19 data never sleeps. Here are a few news items and new sources from the past week.
The sources listed here are included in my resources spreadsheet, along with all featured sources from past issues.
Detailed hospitalization data go unreported: A new story by NPR’s Pien Huang and Selena Simmons-Duffin reveals county-, city-, and individual hospital-level reports which the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) circulates internally but does not post publicly. HHS’s public reports on hospital capacity only include data at the state level. According to Huang and Simmons-Duffin’s reporting, more local data and contextual information such as per capita calculations and time series would be incredibly useful for the public health experts who are trying to determine where aid is most needed. The NPR story also notes that hospital compliance is low: only 62% of U.S. hospitals had sent HHS all the required information in the week prior to October 30.
HHS Protect has expanded: For a few months now, the HHS Protect Public Data Hub has only hosted COVID-19 hospitalization data. But recently, the website expanded to include a section on national testing. Users can clearly see cumulative PCR testing numbers from the country, download the full dataset, and read documentation. This dataset has been publicly available on healthdata.gov since July, but through hosting it on the HHS Protect Public Data Hub, the agency has made it more easily accessible for Americans who are not data nerds like myself.
Daily testing needs: A new tool from the Brown School of Public Health helps users calculate how many tests are needed for key essential groups, both for the nation overall and state-by-state. The tool is intended for public health leaders and policymakers who are starting to scale up as antigen tests become more widely available. For example, New York would need 37,300 tests a day to screen all college and university students.
Pennsylvania’s antigen tests: On October 14, Pennsylvania started distributing antigen test kits to health centers, nursing homes, and other facilities throughout the state. The facilities receiving tests are reported by the state in weekly lists. I wanted to share this because it’s a great example of testing transparency; though if Pennsylvania adds antigen tests to their dashboard, their reporting will be even more comprehensive. For more information on why state antigen test reporting is important—and how states have failed at it so far—see my COVID Tracking Project blog post from last week.
COVID holiday FAQs: Epidemiologists from Boston University, the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and the University of Miami have compiled their responses to common concerns around the holiday season. The questions included range from, “How do I talk to friends and family members about COVID and the holidays?” to, “Is it important to get my flu shot?” (P.S. It is. Get your flu shot.)
COVID-19 in ICE detention centers: Since March 24, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice have been compiling data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on COVID-19 cases and testing in immigrant detention centers. The researchers note that ICE replaces previously reported numbers whenever its dataset is updated, making it difficult to track COVID-19 in these facilities over time.
Eviction Lab: Researchers from Princeton University compile data for this source by reviewing formal eviction records in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Although the source’s most recent state-level dataset is as of 2016, the group is also tracking COVID-19-related evictions in real time for a select group of cities. Houston, TX, at the top of the list, has seen over 13,000 new eviction filings since March.
HHS celebrity tracker: Here’s one more piece of HHS news, this one more lighthearted. This week, POLITICO’s Dan Diamond released an HHS document called the “PSA Celebrity Tracker,” which health officials were using to determine which of America’s favorite people may be useful in an ad campaign encouraging the nation to be less negative about COVID-19. (Here’s more context from POLITICO on the tracker.) Alec Baldwin, for example, is listed as a celebrity who appeals to the elderly, with the additional note: “interested but having a baby in a few weeks.” Lin-Manuel Miranda is listed as appealing to Asian-Americans, with the note: “No information regarding political affiliation.”
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More recommended reading
My Stacker bylines
News from the COVID Tracking Project
That’s all for today! I’ll be back next week with more data news.
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