This year’s seen a rapid reduction of available COVID data. Certainly in California, where we’ve been spoiled with extensive information on the spread of this virus.
In 2020, as the pandemic began to ramp up, the state and counties began to launch dashboards and datasets, quickly making knowledge available for anyone who wanted to work with it. State dashboards tracked state-wide and some county-wide metrics, while local dashboards focused on hyper-local information and trends.
Not just county dashboards, but schools, hospitals, and newspapers began to share information. Individuals, like myself, got involved and began to consolidate data, compute new data, and make that available to anyone who wanted it.
California was open with most of their data, providing CSV files, spreadsheets, and Tableau dashboards on the California Open Data portal. We lacked open access to the state’s CalREDIE system, but we still had a lot to work with.
It was a treasure trove that let us see how the pandemic was evolving and helped inform decisions.
But things have changed.
The Beginning of the End
The last 6 months or so, this data has begun to dry up. Counties have shut down or limited dashboards. The state’s moved to once-a-week case information. Vaccine stats have stopped being updated with new boosters.
This was inevitable. Much of this requires coordination between humans, real solid effort. Funding is drying up for COVID-related data work. People are burnt out and moving on from their jobs. New diseases and flu seasons have taken precedence.
But this leaves us in a bad position.
Trends are no longer fine-grained. We can no longer see day-by-day case numbers. This means trends now have to be seen over a wide range of time.
Due to testing times, we were always looking in the past before, but even more so now.
Rapid testing caused a significant reduction in reported cases. We were always seen an under-count, but even more so now.
Datasets that still report are based on different reporting frequencies, making all this even harder.
And as data became increasingly inconsistent and time-lagged, so did our understanding of what that data was telling us. A problem, since what we do have points to challenges ahead as we continue to try to co-exist with a virus that leaves so many with immune deficiencies and prolonged symptoms.
Struggling To Hang On
I used to report daily on COVID data for Butte County, CA, on Twitter, on Facebook, and through my dashboard. I could explain to people what they were seeing, help them understand. Based on feedback, this was invaluable to many, helping people make smart decisions for themselves and their loved ones.
Once-a-day became twice-a-week, matching data releases.
Then the schools stopped reporting altogether. This was a big loss for our community. We learned so much from the spread of COVID in schools. It was a canary in the coal mine. As school data dried up, so did a big chunk of our understanding of where case were spreading and amongst which age groups.
Then the local jail stopped. Just before they did, there was data showing activity amongst inmates and staff. And now… nothing.
State hospital information became less frequent. Maybe a couple times a week. Sometimes missing days.
Local sequencing data is expected to disappear, meaning we’ll no longer know which variants we’re dealing with.
So now, what data I have is weekly, and limited, and getting worse all the time.
What We Had and What We’re Losing
Again, this was inevitable, and there are good reasons for it. But it is such a shame, and a loss to our understanding of where we are in this still on-going pandemic.
The data aspects of the pandemic were fascinating in that had such a wealth of useful information, with sites popping up around the Internet to visualize the spread and trends. Average people developing an understanding of viral spread like never before. Data experts finding new ways to model and represent what’s happening at every level of scale, and showing the impacts that mitigations (masks, cleaner air, and vaccines) can have.
For a while there, it felt like this availability of data would go on forever. But those days are nearly behind us.
Feb 28, 2023 will mark the end of the pandemic emergency in California. At this rate, I suspect the data will stop soon after.
And then we’ll be blind once more.
While still in a pandemic.