“The more information out there the better,” House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland County) said. “If you just keep that data stored away on some shelf in some office at Health and Human Services in Raleigh, and you ‘re not getting it out to the media or out to the citizens, then it’s not doing anybody any good.”
Indeed, tackling the COVID-19 pandemic has varied across state lines, including decisions on the extent of Stay-At-Home orders, how to expand testing and when to ease restrictions and reignite the economy. It should be little surprise, then, that an ABC11 I-Team investigation finds variances in the information states are either unable or unwilling to share regarding the novel coronavirus.
“We have been frustrated that we haven’t seen as much robust and deep data when it comes to a county-by-county basis,” Moore said. “Getting that information out there I think is very, very helpful because there is a lot of fear out there, there is a lot of uncertainty about what this means.”
COVID-19 demographic information, cases by zip codes and names of congregate care facilities have been the top requests sought by states across the country.
In recent weeks, North Carolina has started releasing zip code data, naming affected nursing homes and releasing statistics on recovered cases. The Tar Heel State, however, still lags behind in transparency for some data, including cumulative hospitalization numbers, testing data by county, demographic of cases at the county level, the number of pending tests and the name of meat-processing plants with COVID-19 outbreaks.
Virginia, by contrast, breaks down hospitalizations by race and by zip code and also tracks outbreaks connected to educational settings. Georgia, meanwhile, tracks correctional facility cases by staff versus inmates and also reports hospitalizations at the county level.
“Each state has its own data infrastructure which includes both state as well as local data and pre-existing surveillance systems,” a spokesperson for NCDHHS said. “NCDHHS is also posting data which many of our neighboring states aren’t posting, including information about current PPE, proportion of North Carolinians who have a risk factor for a serious illness from COVID by age and race/ethnicity, and COVID cases and deaths with underlying health conditions by age.”
While the state does update its dashboard daily, individual county health departments are also releasing county-specific information every day and meeting different standards of transparency.
Counties like Cumberland, Orange and Johnston do report demographics of their reported cases–localized data the state does not report–but there isn’t any consistency or law that mandates county health departments disclose this information and many don’t. ABC11 filed official public information requests with Wake and Durham counties for racial data on COVID-19 cases, but the counties have yet to respond.
Lenoir, Sampson and Cherokee counties, moreover, include how many total residents have been tested in their daily press releases, but Hoke and Lee counties said to find the number you would need to contact every test provider since private providers only are required to report positive numbers to the local health department.
“Because negative test reporting is not mandatory, testing is often reported in batches or in aggregate,” the NCDHHS spokesperson said. “Further, most demographics are not part of a lab order form. Therefore, we do not currently report testing by demographics or the number of residents tested by county. We continue to assess how to best provide accurate data, balancing public health and patient privacy while responding to the pandemic.”
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