If Health Systems are Designed to Look at Old Data, How Will We Ever Have the Full Picture?
The Omicron case count graphs now resemble a vertical wall rather than the curves we’ve been seeing — and trying to flatten — for the past two years. The question we’ve all been asking: when will it finally peak?
Answering that question isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. Understanding the waves of the pandemic depends on good data, and unfortunately, Omicron is simply spreading faster than we can count. There are several reasons that our system, which depends on counting positive lab tests, is falling short: test availability is low, turnaround time for lab-based PCR tests is long, and millions of home rapid test results go unreported.
That’s a recipe for a wildly incomplete picture of what’s happening right now. The fundamental flaw with the CDC and many health systems is that they are designed to look at old data, like lab tests and doctor’s visits. As long as that’s true and as long as we are confronted with fast-moving illnesses like Omicron, we’re set up to fail.
Take a look at the most recent data from the CDC. It publishes only aggregated data from the prior week. That means on the mornings before publication (usually Fridays), the data available to health care officials and practitioners across the country is 12 days old! That can have serious consequences:
The left map shows the latest data on the CDC’s site, released January 15 and covering the week of January 1–8. Readers looking at this data today might conclude that illness levels are low in much of the west and central plains. But Kinsa’s real-time data, which tracks the moment of symptom onset, shows a very different story: illness in those regions is actually very high, indicating that we have not yet seen the peak. That story won’t be reflected in CDC maps for weeks to come.
When illness finally does begin to fall, Kinsa’s data will be the first to detect it. In fact, the New York Times looked at Kinsa’s early data to determine that cases in parts of the northeast may well have already peaked.
Accurate, timely data isn’t just an academic issue. As we learn to live with covid, understanding our everyday risk level is crucial to determining our behaviors and the precautions we feel are necessary at any given time. We need to make sure that the public health data we base our decisions from is as timely — and as accurate — as possible.