State officials are considering reducing the frequency of reporting of COVID-19 cases, vaccinations, and other data, numbers that have been closely followed by many Massachusetts residents during the pandemic.
Officials are engaged in internal discussions and giving “serious consideration” to reducing the reporting from five days a week to once a week, said Dr. Catherine Brown, state epidemiologist at the Department of Public Health.
Brown explained that when the pandemic began more than two years ago, daily reporting was necessary because officials “were trying to make everybody aware of what was happening” and the need to take measures such as social distancing and wearing masks.
“We needed to show them, ‘Here’s what’s happening,’ on a granular level every single day,” she said.
Now, however, “We’re in a different time. We’re 2½ years later. We have the pharmaceutical tools. We have preventive tools,” such as testing, vaccines, antivirals, and monoclonal antibody treatments. And daily numbers aren’t going to affect the recommendations for people to use them, Brown said.
“Those tools are not changing on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “Things do not change rapidly enough now with COVID that the public health recommendations are going to change from Wednesday to Thursday.”
The release of data weekly will still allow people to keep track of trends over time and take steps, if necessary, to protect themselves, she also said.
Experts had a variety of reactions to the idea of reducing the cadence of reporting, with some worrying that it would blur the state’s picture of the pandemic and others saying it wouldn’t make a difference at this stage.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist and the director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College, said he thought it was a “reasonable” move.
”I don’t think anything is lost,” Landrigan said. “The situation with COVID is not changing as rapidly as it was a year ago.”
But Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an assistant professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center, said that with the rise of the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants in the United States, “it just wouldn’t be the right time” to reduce the frequency.
”I really like those reports,” Assoumou said. “Right now, when we have a more transmissible and more immune-evasive subvariant, I would like to still be able to have access to the information on a daily basis until we learn a little bit more about what this subvariant is going to do.”
Brown, the state epidemiologist, said officials had been watching carefully what other jurisdictions have been doing in terms of reporting frequency and “also thinking about what makes sense for Massachusetts.” As of Tuesday, at least 26 states had moved to weekly reporting, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont, she said.
The change in frequency would apply to the state’s coronavirus dashboard and daily vaccination reports, which are posted on the Web every weekday. (The state last July reduced the reporting frequency to five days a week from seven days a week.)
The state would still be collecting daily data, just not publishing it, she said. She also said if the pandemic situation worsens, the state could switch back to more frequent reporting.
Brown did not give a date that the decision would be made on whether to reduce the reporting frequency. “We’re still talking about it,” she said.
Andrew Lover, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at UMass Amherst, said the daily case counts are “not a great indicator anymore,” with many people using rapid, at-home tests and not reporting their cases to the state. “As a result, switching to weekly reporting won’t have a huge impact.”
“Weekly reporting is also the standard for most other infectious diseases like influenza, so this harmonizes reporting,” Lover said in an e-mail. “In summary, it’s not ideal, but probably won’t have any massive impacts as reporting data are hard to parse now anyway.”
Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said that weekly reporting seems sufficient.
”I don’t see that there’s a need for the daily tallies just because we’ve gotten used to them,” he said. “There’s no evidence that any action has been taken because of a day-to-day change in the trend.”
However, he emphasized the need to keep up efforts to collect the data.
”We want to make sure that the same diligence is applied to collecting the data and that just because we’re going to less frequent reporting doesn’t mean that people are paying less close attention to gathering as much of the data as we can,” he said.
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiology professor who is the inaugural director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health, said, “you lose something” when the frequency of reporting is reduced. “It becomes much harder, when you go to weekly reporting, to understand if something new is happening and, if so, what.”
“By the time you get a signal, a clear signal, that something’s happening, you may already have lost a few weeks,” she said.
The numbers are crucial for decision making not just by a state’s governor but by individuals, businesses, school groups, community groups, and others, she said.
“The best way to support that is to give people the finest, most granular data so they can stay ahead of the trends,” she said.
She also was worried that the switch in the cadence of reporting could “downgrade the level of attention” officials pay to the trends.
But Brown, the Department of Public Health official, said the state would be carefully monitoring the numbers, and “we would not be caught by surprise.”
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com.