For the last month or so, every day at around 4 p.m., the state’s Department of Public Health has been releasing aggregate numbers of positive cases of COVID-19 along with the number of deaths caused by the outbreak.
Yet Massachusetts residents still lack an understanding of the depth and breadth of the crisis because state authorities are not disclosing the type of granular infection data, including specific numbers for each municipality and a breakdown by demographic groups, that would offer key insights to tailor the public health response and create greater accountability.
Where are the geographical clusters? We don’t know, because the state has advised cities and towns to refrain from releasing their data on infections (DPH only reports numbers by county). Are Massachusetts Blacks and Latinos getting disproportionately hit by COVID-19, as has been the case in other parts of the country? We still don’t have a clear picture because the state started breaking down data by race and ethnicity only this week, and it was an incomplete data set. Less than a third of combined deaths and positive cases of the coronavirus included racial and ethnic information.
Meanwhile, relatives of residents at nursing homes and other senior care facilities are getting increasingly frustrated and angry that state officials “will not tell us how bad” infections are at those places.
The state’s pattern of erring on the side of nondisclosure is increasingly problematic in the midst of a pandemic. Yes, it’s appropriate to consider patient privacy and to avoid releasing information that could be personally identifiable.But the coronavirus outbreak has grown so large that the risks to any one patient’s privacy have become minimal — while the need for complete data to guide the government’s response and allow the public to vet it has grown.
“We are already collecting age & gender,” tweeted US Representative Ayanna Pressley this week. The congresswoman from Massachusetts called for the next federal coronavirus relief bill to include a requirement to collect and report race-specific data. “Data informs our public health response & containment strategies, it helps us to identify trends, clusters, it holds us accountable to equitable access to testing & treatment.” It will save lives, she said.
We are already collecting age & gender. Data informs our public health response & containment strategies, it helps us to identify trends, clusters, it holds us accountable to equitable access to testing & treatment. IT WILL SAVE LIVES. It is a matter of the PUBLIC HEALTH.— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) April 8, 2020
Pressley is right. An incomplete set of public statistics will yield an incomplete and inefficient policy response.
The City of Boston is doing a better job than the state in releasing detailed numbers. Mayor Marty Walsh on Thursday released a preliminary COVID-19 report broken down by race and ethnicity that included about 60 percent of positive cases. It showed a blunt picture of disparities: While Black people make up roughly 25 percent of city residents, they account for more than 40 percent of infections.
Recently, Boston officials started releasing a weekly COVID-19 report on the rates of incidence per neighborhood. Other cities and towns have been disclosing their own municipality-specific data for their residents, but it’s an inconsistent practice.
Releasing those town- or city-specific infection numbers across the board and in context — relative to the population and the number of tests, to determine potential clusters — could help create a real sense of urgency among local officials and residents when numbers start to climb in certain areas relative to others. That could save lives. The public shouldn’t have revelations after the fact, like the disclosure this week that Chelsea, a Latino immigrant enclave, tops the state in infection rates.
Other states are releasing granular statistics that paint a clearer picture of what COVID-19 looks like statewide. Consider Connecticut, where state officials have been disclosing town-by-town numbers, as well as race and ethnicity information along with age and gender. Massachusetts should follow suit.
On Thursday, Baker offered a promise to Massachusetts residents as he continues to fight the pandemic. “I will be incredibly careful about not permitting this insidious, awful, and horribly dangerous and contagious virus from coming back any time soon,” he said during his daily coronavirus televised update. That promise must include the prompt release of specific data.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.