A key question as New Jersey seeks to prevent the coronavirus from spreading in the community: Where are the residents in the disease?
Does the virus pass between coaches and athletes in youth sports? Or among the workers coming to the office? Do dining rooms pick up the disease in restaurants and bars, or are gamblers in casinos? Knowing which of these is the most prevalent can be critical for decision makers as they consider whether they want to introduce new restrictions or ease existing ones.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Health offered a statistical insight into the places where it believes COVID-19 is spreading. In Governor Phil Murphy’s regular news release, the government presented two tables that broken down the place of the disease in the community, with 33% of epidemics in October caused by sports teams and double-digit percentages held in workplaces and day care facilities.
But the strength of this data is uncertain. In one month, which showed an average of more than 975 new cases per day, the statistics were based on 51 epidemics and did not describe how well the criteria were exceeded: at least three related infections that did not affect family members or other households.
In determining the meaning of the community-based epidemic, the state has ruled out some well-known potential hotspots — schools, health care, and congregations living as nursing homes — that are likely to change the picture.
By offering the breakups on November 12, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli nodded to their limits, saying they were based on the results of a follow-up monitoring with which officials are only cooperating with 4 out of 10 residents.
The data “would be more complete if members of the public responded to the trail of contacts and shared information about who they were, who they contacted and where they were,” Persichilli said. “This information is vital to protect the health of others and prevent the virus from spreading.”
Barriers point to data challenges that continue for eight months in a pandemic while the second wave breaks: Even if New Jersey publishes the number of numbers daily at the location of the infection, some of that data is incomplete or difficult to synchronize with larger with a picture.
Yet there is value in these data, even if they are not statistically strongest, said Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist at Rutgers School of Public Health. Not surprisingly, the sport would be a venue for the broadcast, given the relationship between the players and the restrictions on wearing the mask, he said. As the parent of a 4-year-old child, Raymond said he was interested in having a daycare on the list.
“From a public health standpoint, I would say we got this; it’s at our best, so we use that for our guide, ”Raymond said. “If we have to work with that in making decisions, we have to work with it.”
The Ministry of Health underlined in a written statement on Friday that it is not always possible to identify the source of a given infection.
“We know if someone is showing a positive result, but even for that person, it’s not certain when and how they came out,” spokesman Dawn Thomas said. “We know that these identified epidemics account for a small percentage of reported cases. This is all because many communities are spreading that do not meet the criteria for an outbreak and because outbreaks are often not always recognized and reported.
In recent days, the state has announced further restrictions on social life, including further restrictions on the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings, a ban on interstate indoor youth sports, and new restrictions on bars and restaurants. This comes at a time when the number of cases, hospital care, and COVID-19 patients in intensive care has skyrocketed, with officials warned it could get worse as the weather cools down, Thanksgiving and winter holidays approach.
The pandemic has forced governments across the country to build large information platforms out of nowhere in the midst of a public health crisis, unlike a century ago. Murphy regularly insists that data guide his decisions, and the COVID Tracking Project, a coronavirus information clearing house, gives the state a Class A in the quality of data presented to the public.
But New Jersey also has criticisms for its transparency, especially in the early days of the infection. The epidemic was a month before the state announced the home for epidemic nursing homes, although facilities accounted for nearly half of the deaths recorded by the state. Then in July, the Department of Health began liquidating the list, removing all facilities that had been coronavirus-free for 28 days, which critics say prevents residents from getting a full picture of nursing homes with high fatalities.
In late September, the state unveiled a dashboard to track school week outbreaks in the new school year. But the data are broken down only by county and do not name schools or school districts, nor do they identify the time of eruption or their circumstances.
Eric Forgoston is a professor of applied mathematics at Montclair State University who builds models to predict the spread and spread of the virus. He said he and his staff have long been frustrated by the gaps in data in New Jersey, although he called it a national problem in which some states are doing worse.
Accurate data that is readily available to lay people is critical, especially given the amount of disinformation circulating about the coronavirus, Forgoston said.
“It’s very important for any member of the public to be able to look at the data and make a reasoned statement to themselves about what they see,” Forgoston said.
He added: “Ultimately, the data is everything, right? There’s the story.
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Riley Yates is available at: [email protected].