Still in the Dark: Why Case Data Doesn’t Cut It
More than two years into the pandemic, the path forward is as confusing as ever. Are we nearing the end? Is it becoming endemic? Are there going to be frequent surges — and do they matter?
One thing seems certain: when it comes to gauging risk and taking precautions, responsibility has shifted from public health agencies to individuals and families. Mask mandates are all but gone, and things are as back to normal as they’ve ever been. But at the same time, the Omicron wave and subsequent variants have sent cases surging. It would make sense that risk averse people would use news of rising cases to adjust their behavior accordingly until the trends change.
However, there’s a problem: it’s harder than ever to know where and when illness is rising. While ubiquitous at-home, rapid covid testing is crucial to curbing spread, those test results are seldom reported. Our public health system relies on lab-based PCR tests to gauge where and how fast cases are rising. But far fewer people are getting PCR tests, and the delay in receiving results means that we have less time to respond. In fact, a recent study found that with the widespread availability of at-home rapid tests that aren’t reported to health departments: “the true number of cases may be in the ballpark of eight times higher than case counts. In other words, instead of 100,000 new cases a day, the true number may be 800,000 cases per day.”
Frankly, that’s not good enough. We need real time data that captures a true picture of when and where illness is surging. This means we need data that doesn’t depend on formally entering the health care system via a doctor’s visit or a lab test in order to be counted. We need to know when and where people fall ill — as soon as it happens, not days or weeks later.
That’s the driving principle behind Kinsa: as a public health company using data to predict, prepare for and prevent the spread of illness, we combine AI, epidemiological techniques, and unique illness data gathered from millions of households to track and forecast the spread of illness earlier than any other system and get ahead of the next surge. We can’t be “flying blind” as a result of shifting testing methods.
We also share this data at www.healthweather.us, where anyone can see their real-time risk while learning how they can best protect themselves given local conditions. It’s like a weather report for illness — it sounds simple, but it’s groundbreaking.