by Natalie Hanson
posted Nov. 17
During the past few months, Butte County -– like many California counties — has scaled down its local COVID data collection process.
The change comes after two years of maintaining a database displayed on the Public Health Department website that was based on data gathered daily from local medical service providers.
Now the county is relying on state data that is updated only once per week -– and that worries data wizards like Christian Hammond. Hammond, who runs the Unofficial Butte County COVID-19 Dashboard -– separate from the dashboard managed by public health –- said only getting updated data weekly will further impede what is already a slow, flawed way to study the novel coronavirus.
“It impacts how we see trends over time,” Hammond said. “And it’s also hard to compare to previous trends at that point. Now it will take weeks to determine what a trend looks like.”
The county’s data reporting, Hammond added, has been the front line for providing new, accurate information about the virus to the public. But already, slowing the data release times has led to delays in new information, and at times the dashboard only shows data that is at least one week old.
Hammond lives in the county that saw the first recorded COVID case in the state, with a public health officer who helped lead the state response to the pandemic. But as he watched the reaction to the pandemic in Butte County from Santa Clara County, he grew concerned for his family in Chico.
He began researching data that was emerging from Butte County Public Health, and by May 2020, had created his own website to track the virus’s progression.
“My thoughts at the time were, ‘I can be safe here but I don’t know what’s going to happen with people I care about,’” Hammond said. “Unless you were tracking it yourself, you weren’t really aware of how cases were growing.”
Data for the public
Butte County has struggled with awareness of how COVID cases have changed over the last two years, and still has a much lower primary series vaccination rate -– meaning a person who received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine -– of 52% compared to the state average, 72%. As of Nov. 17, the state estimates nearly 9 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people each day -– which in Butte County is lower at about 7 cases per 100,000.
Erin Cox, the department’s emergency preparedness and infectious disease control director, said California’s Department of Public Health left the decision on whether to maintain a local link to the state dashboard on COVID-19 up to each county. Butte County opted to maintain a new version of its dashboard with state reports.
“What we’re doing is a bit of a redesign to make the dashboard a friendlier version,” Cox said.
“A lot of these dashboards were set up to bridge the gap in reporting, so that our community could be informed. Now the state and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have both ramped up access to data, and now local health jurisdictions are able to access that data.”
The portal uses data from CDPH’s dashboard CalREDIE (California Reportable Disease Information Exchange) using case rates and other information from reporting medical sources across the state. One local source that has worked directly with BCPH to spread awareness of the virus and local case rates and deaths is Enloe Medical Center.
A spokesperson said that Enloe has not changed any part of its approach to reporting COVID case data.
“Enloe Medical Center attempted to mitigate misinformation and fear regarding COVID-19 and vaccines by sharing the hospital’s daily census of COVID-19 patients,” it said in a statement. “Given that hospitalized patients with COVID-19 have been declining and remain low, the numbers are not being shared publicly at this time. If cases were to increase, Enloe Medical Center is prepared to again share those figures with the community through our social media channels.”
An independent public service
Hammond says having reliable sources of new data from trusted sources is important to help people understand unfamiliar phenomena that can be overwhelming to research.
His Unofficial Butte County COVID-19 Dashboard came online in June 2020, a project that at first required about four hours a day to manage. The immediate response was positive, including from people outside of Butte County.
“It just sort of took on a life of its own,” Hammond said.
His dashboard is different from the county’s because he not only reports the numbers on COVID across the region, but provides a report to help people understand the data. Each report walks the reader through the new data and explains what they are seeing, including why they might be seeing changes in numbers that fluctuate every few days.
While Hammond thinks this year the state is not as mired in a “COVID data fog,” as he calls it, he thinks there are still many issues with how data is reported and collected. COVID data comes from many different sources, with significant room for human error.
“Around the Omicron (variant wave), things started to fall apart,” he said. “A lot more sources started disappearing and became once a week, or once a month. At home testing became very common and people stopped going in for PCR tests.”
Preventing misinformation spreads
Hammond said that with less frequent data reporting, it is hard to tell what is happening in each community, particularly with so many strains of the virus that evolve rapidly. The change could also cause confusion because state data will show a higher death rate than before, due to how the state collects reports.
“I’m very concerned about the opportunity for misinformation, and the fact that people have misunderstood so much about this current phase of the virus,” he said.
“Now it will take weeks to determine what a trend looks like” — Hammond
There is also a new state effort to prevent misinformation spread by doctors and public health officials. New legislation, Assembly Bill 2098, proposes that a physician or surgeon commits professional misconduct if they disseminate “misinformation or disinformation” about the nature and risks of COVID-19, its prevention and treatment, and the development, safety and effectiveness of vaccines. If the bill passes, a doctor committing these actions could face discipline by the state medical board or osteopathic
medical board -– and could potentially lose their license to practice in California.
Butte’s public health officer, Dr. David Canton, was not available to comment on the legislation before deadline. Butte County Public Health has told ChicoSol before that it works to prevent misinformation about COVID-19 -– but it does not delete users’ comments containing that misinformation from social media platforms, out of concern for free speech.
Hammond said he often hears people say they believe Covid is mild, which he attributes to “bad communication around the virus,” driving misunderstandings and opportunities for rumors and disinformation to proliferate. He is also pessimistic about whether people will even seek out data, and believe in the science behind it.
“If you’re not someone who’s interested in COVID data, it’s more likely that you’re going to listen to the person who’s yelling on TV or social media,” Hammond said.
“A lot of counties and organizations have given up entirely on this. Butte County Public Health has not given up on this, and I’m personally really appreciative of that.”
Chico State’s Public Health department chair Stan Salinas said he does not think a lack of daily data will impact people’s willingness to get vaccinated or boosted or seek medical treatment or advice. For that reason, he said he is not sure what state or local agencies can do to increase awareness.
“The literature suggests that most people do not seek out COVID-related information from government sources, even when those people indicate high levels of trust in their government,” he said. “They get it from news organizations and social media as well as other trusted sources like family and healthcare providers.”
Asked how the changes in case reporting could affect vulnerable populations, Salinas said he thinks that “marginalized populations will remain marginalized,” including in awareness of COVID variants. Butte County’s Latino population, like Latino communities throughout the state, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 disinformation -– particularly vulnerable populations like immigrants and undocumented people.
“The more accurate, timely data we have the better,” Salinas said. “As data gets older, it
gets less relevant.
“Scientific study related to a virus or pandemic would utilize retrospective data, so state and federal sources would suffice if we assume that the data is accurate. However, we know that because of at-home testing, even confirmed cases are vastly under counted. That being said, models exist to adjust for the under counting of cases.”
As for Hammond, he still plans to keep up the dashboard, because there are still people in the community looking for accurate information. He said he does not do this for income, and hopes to reach people who are less interested in information from the government “and want an individual who can fact check that information.”
“I didn’t expect to do it this long, but I believe in the data,” he said. “This is a virus that can cause severe issues like long COVID, and there’s value in (studying) it as long as we can benefit from it and as long as I can keep it going. It’s one thing to see the data, and another to see the context around that data.”
Because there are variants spreading throughout the world that are more infectious that have not yet arrived in California, he hopes people pay attention and get the bivalent booster shots. The state reports that less than 13% of Californians have gotten these boosters as of Nov. 17.
“I think if we want to avoid another major surge, people really need to get on that,” Hammond said. “They’re not only protecting themselves, they are protecting the people in our community -– people who are immunocompromised or at higher risk due to their jobs or their personal conditions. It’s everyone’s choice as to whether to get the booster, but we should think of the people we care about when making those choices.”
Natalie Hanson is a contributor to ChicoSol.