Maine is among a majority of states that are not reporting new COVID-19 cases daily in a national trend that could obscure the trajectory of the infectious omicron variant.
Public health agencies operating at a screech in 2020 dialed back reporting when cases waned in the middle of this year. Maine began skipping Sunday and Monday case releases in July when it stopped doing case investigations on weekends and holidays. Those counts are released on Tuesday.
The state is one of 35 that does not release new COVID-19 cases each day, according to The Wall Street Journal, down from four last year, with many citing worker shortages. Taken together, experts say the reporting changes nationally could hamper officials as they are forced to make quick decisions to prevent the spread of the virus.
Maine’s news outlets widely share case counts. While they indicate trends in how the virus is spreading in the state, they are only one important metric. Along with cases, the state has set hospitalization records in recent weeks that show more acute stress on the health care system.
Circumstances have changed since Maine stopped daily case counts in July, when cases dropped after a spike in vaccinations as the delta variant was taking hold. Only 926 cases had been reported in June. Almost 20,000 cases have been reported from Dec. 1 to Thursday, Dec. 23.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is evaluating data releases to ensure the agency’s “operational tempo” reflects data people need to know, Director Nirav Shah told reporters on Wednesday. But there are no plans to change the release of numbers, he said.
“We don’t do case investigations on the weekends and for that, we don’t have any intention of changing,” Shah said.
An evolving notion among many epidemiologists is that data related to hospital capacity, such as hospitalizations and ICU occupancy, were more important than daily counts, Shah said. He noted that daily case counts fluctuate based on “many other variables.”
While daily COVID-19 case totals are not particularly important in a vacuum, they can be a vital indicator when looking at trends over extended periods, said Indiana University public health professor Brian Dixon, who works with health agencies to track COVID-19 data with the university’s Regenstrief Institute and helps run its data dashboard in Indiana.
While hospitalization numbers are more important than cases, cases are vital as a future indicator of hospitalizations, he said.
“If cases are going up in a community, we can expect more hospitalizations,” Dixon said. “We can expect more deaths.”
While most health departments do not release data seven days a week, Dixon said not doing so on Monday could be “confusing” since it is when most people start work weeks. But a Monday-Friday morning release schedule could also have some blind spots. Results from Friday would not be reported until Monday and bunched with data from Saturday and Sunday.
The importance of releasing data also needs to be balanced with the fact that this data is being gathered and released by agencies that can’t overwork their staff. That may be even more critical in a state like Maine, which has fewer resources than larger states, Dixon said.
While a state not reporting every day could affect national or regional case totals, the numbers may be less significant given Maine’s relatively small population, he said.
As the omicron pandemic continues, Dixon said it was not looking good for his state and the rest of the United States. One thing he fears could obscure the data even more is at-home tests being used in large numbers without generally being reported to states. It is another example of the complexities of collecting and releasing reliable data.
“We want consumers to have that freedom to test at home,” Dixon said. “On the other hand, if positive results are not reported, then it could look like numbers are plateauing or going when in reality they are going up.”
Correction: The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention releases COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations five days per week and conducts contact tracing seven days per week. An earlier version of this story misstated the frequency of death and hospitalization updates and contact tracing.