With another cold and flu season around the corner, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has rolled out new viral respiratory illness trackers.
The new dashboards focus on COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. The announcement follows a surge of those viruses last year that experts dubbed a “tripledemic,” said state epidemiologist Catherine Brown during a Wednesday press conference.
“We’re heading into a year where COVID, flu, and RSV are likely to co-circulate,” Brown said. “Last season with the tripledemic, we started to see what our future might look like.”
With its updated dashboards, the DPH is placing COVID, flu, and RSV data in one location. A centralized landing page shows snapshots of emergency department visits and hospital admissions for flu and COVID, ranked on a five-level scale ranging from minimal to high. Right now, each is in the “low” designation, one slot above “minimal.”
The COVID reporting dashboard will also break down confirmed and probable cases, confirmed and probable deaths, and demographic characteristics of cases and deaths by city and town.
Individual reporting pages allow users to see data on waste-water surveillance for COVID; and reports of other common respiratory viruses such as RSV, rhinovirus, and adenovirus. Each dashboard will be updated weekly on Thursdays at 5 p.m., Brown said.
A dashboard tracking immunizations is in the works and will be released soon, according to Brown.
“Last year was probably the beginning of establishing what a new pattern is going to look like in an environment that isn’t just flu and RSV anymore,” Brown said.
Jeremy Faust, an emergency medical doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said this data is particularly helpful for health care professionals.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Faust said. “We can get a better idea of what we mean when we say there’s something going around.”
However, he said he worried about “information overload” for the average patient. Faust said the data would be more helpful if it came with analysis — a “virus report” he likened to a weather report. Identifying hot spots and micro-trends would help people stay healthy even during peak cold and flu season, he said.
While the DPH did not share plans to provide analysis, the state does intend to use the data to identify patterns and predict trends, Brown said. It will also further DPH efforts to equalize access to vaccinations, Brown said.
Through programs such as the vaccine equity initiative, Massachusetts began to address the disproportionate impact of COVID on people of color. This effort is a “continued priority” for the DPH, Brown said.
“This has been so important because we’ve certainly seen disparities when it comes to the impact of COVID on individuals of color,” she said. “This is one of the things we focused on with data evaluation during COVID, but it shouldn’t just be COVID.”
When asked whether last season’s tripledemic indicated what the future will look like, Brown said it’s too early to tell.
“There’s a saying that ‘if you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season,’ which is to say the patterns are different year after year,” Brown said. “We’re ready to monitor the patterns as they happen.”