DC Council pushes health officials on timing of covid case data

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As coronavirus cases appear to be rising locally and nationally with far less surveillance than in previous covid waves, DC lawmakers are arguing with local public health officials over how much case data the city has. should disclose to the public.

At a board meeting on Friday, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) expressed his unease — which many board members share — about DC’s practice of releasing a modest amount of data about the virus once per week, rather than every day of the week as the health department did for nearly two years.

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Mendelson noted that the city’s reported rate of new weekly cases per 100,000 residents rose from 168 to 298 in a week lately — its highest level since January’s omicron surge.

“If it’s going to go up, skyrocket – don’t we want to know more recently than once a week?” Mendelson asked.

Patrick Ashley, director of emergency response for the health department, responded by saying residents don’t need to monitor daily fluctuations in data. “Allow public health experts to do what they do best and watch the trend,” Ashley said.

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He said in a later interview that although government leaders have urged people to look at data on coronavirus cases to make decisions about what risks to take, he considers weekly data to be the best. “We want individuals to make risk-based decisions based on trends, so that day-to-day data interpretation doesn’t allow people to understand what’s going on in the community. Some days there are more tests or less tests,” he said. “They have to look at it holistically.”

Tensions have risen between the board and the health department since early May, when the department — which had reported new coronavirus cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at least weekly and sometimes daily — stopped reporting cases for 12 days.

A day after the Washington Post published an article about the missing data, the city resumed sending numbers to the CDC. Still, six board members sent a letter to DC Health expressing concern.

On Friday, Axios reported that Chief Health Officer LaQuandra Nesbitt responded, discussing the reasons for the discrepancy in data reporting and asking board members to refrain from publicly questioning her agency in the future. . “Recent public comments from several Board members have had the unfortunate effect of undermining trust in DC Health and public health,” she wrote.

Nesbitt wrote that less frequent weekly reports protect the department’s exhausted workforce, which has “I have experienced over two years of 12+ hour workdays, attacks – verbal and physical – on public health professionals and significant misinformation about public health and our work. In response to this and changing pandemic response goals, public health agencies across the United States have refocused how they share data to effectively inform the public of their risk without straining a workforce. already reduced public health.

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Shortly after Nesbitt’s letter, council members had a meeting with Ashley and city administrator Kevin Donahue – the first time in several weeks that the council meeting to question key city leaders about the pandemic, which happened every Friday, was taking place.

“There really has been an information vacuum,” said board member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), referring to repeated cancellations of Friday pandemic meetings and the difficulty, she says, that the members had their emails answered. mayor’s officers. “We are trying to do everything we can and then send an official letter.”

“We don’t want a ‘media war’,” Nadeau said. “We’re just trying to get answers for our constituents who are begging us, after this Washington Post article about the CDC data, to get them.”

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Council members got answers on Friday, but not all they were looking for.

Christina Henderson (I-At Large) asked what level of cases schools in the city might need masks again. Ashley said there are no imminent plans to reinstate the requirement. Donahue noted, “From the beginning, we haven’t relied on a single metric or even a binding trigger that could be a set of metrics.”

Ashley said that at the start of the call — when reporters couldn’t listen in for about 20 minutes, because the city had given them the wrong password for the meeting — he described to council members the discrepancy in reporting to CDC. He said the city has an automated line to the CDC that reports the raw number of positive tests and a manual flow that requires a health worker to clean up the data, such as deleting multiple tests from a person who has been tested multiple times. . Automated reporting continued, but manual reporting stopped and has now resumed, he said.

Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) asked for data on the number of police officers, firefighters and other critical city workers who have come down with covid — information the city has been releasing regularly for nearly two years but is still reporting. stopped at the end of February.

Donahue said the city was “tracking internally less frequently than on a daily basis” and that “increases within these agencies have been much less than increases in the general public.” But presenting those stats publicly, he said, was taking too long for a team that was pretty thin.

Donahue also said he was not ready to answer other questions Allen had submitted ahead of time, including how many DC schools had to simulcast classroom lessons because more of a quarter of students in the class are quarantined at home, and the proportion of preschoolers who participate in the recommended weekly coronavirus tests.

A city website suggests 1,747 of 6,440 3- and 4-year-olds — who the district offers weekly testing to because they’re too young to get vaccinated — have been tested Last week. But Donahue said he thinks the number may actually be about twice as high.

Although Donahue said he would send Allen the answers later, Allen expressed frustration that despite submitting his questions ahead of time, Donahue was unprepared with the answers. That left him with no opportunity to ask follow-up questions until the next such meeting, in two weeks, Allen noted.

As if the coronavirus weren’t enough, one board member raised the specter of another virus. Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) asked: Should DC residents be worried about monkeypox?

“I think ‘worry’ is probably a little aggressive at this point,” Ashley reassured him. “This is something that public health officials are watching very closely.”

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