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How to translate COVID data

Multiple data points, data sources and entities contacting each other and state offices to track a pandemic can mean translating reported daily data from a summary map becomes confusing.

For example, Thursday’s death records from the Ohio Disease Reporting System for Washington County show 41 deaths of county residents who had also been diagnosed with coronavirus.

But that data is just broken into comma-separated values and opened via spreadsheet software.

It identifies the date a person either first presented coronavirus symptoms, or if they were asymptomatic, the date they tested positive.

That first date is called “onset date.”

Publicly, no names are assigned to these cases, and the date of death available strictly acknowledges the passing of that individual who at some point tested positive for the virus.

It does not identify if a COVID-positive patient recovered.

It does not identify if a COVID-positive patient died not of the virus but instead of a car accident, fire, heart attack, or other means.

But the summary Ohio Department of Heath interactive Tableau dashboard both Thursday and Friday still only showed 33 deaths of county residents this year related to coronavirus.

“I’m not sure why there’s a disparity there,” said Marietta-Belpre Health Commissioner Anne Goon on Friday following a special board of health meeting to allocate additional federal dollars within the department. “(State officials are) always very careful about how they state the number of deaths each day. It’s the number of deaths reported in the past 24 hours because sometimes we don’t necessarily find out within 24 hours.”

Goon explained that health departments aren’t the only entities with access to submitting data to the ODRS and are often not the first notified of a new positive case, hospitalization or death within their jurisdictions.

“We don’t even necessarily know when they go to the hospital, quite honestly, because then it becomes the hospital reporting that information, and they, too, have access into ODRS,” explained Goon. “So sometimes we find out word of mouth from a family member when we’re doing our monitoring … Most typically it’s the hospital that has let us know, their infection control staff … but there is no requirement that they report that information directly to us.”

Other times, if an individual was tested by their pharmacy or by Ohio National Guard personnel, that data is also not directly accessible for days by the health department in the jurisdiction where a person lives.

For example, some Washington County residents drove to Athens on Tuesday for their pop-up testing through the Athens County Fairgrounds.

Cars waited in line for 30 minutes to an hour to be greeted at four stations for intake along the drive before having their right nostrils swabbed by guard personnel.

The free testing was sent directly to Mako Medical labs which offer each individual tested a private portal and direct notification of results.

Goon explained that laboratories also directly report positive and negative case counts to the state first rather than the local county/city health departments.

She also gave another example: private population testing.

“For the events that were done here in Marietta, if they were just for college students and staff I did not have access to that link,” she described. “Only the staff at the college did. But for the events that were open to the public, I had access to a link that would link me just to those community members’ results, but not to the students or staff that might have also been tested.”

Another potential for confusion at home: sharing a hospital with other counties.

“We treat patients from multiple counties in our region, and therefore numbers reflected out by county may look different at times than our state-reported number – because of this,” explained Jennifer Offenberger, associate vice president of Memorial Health System on Friday. “Memorial Health System reports every day the number of patient deaths to the state who then reports it up to a national level. We break down from the number of deaths, those that are associated with COVID.”

But when reporting those same numbers of patients back to their county of residence, both Offenberger and Goon explained, the complications continue.

“It’s been challenging especially with being a border county. We have people who get tested in West Virginia,” said Goon. “We get West Virginia residents tested here, we get out-of-county residents tested here. And so anytime you go over a county jurisdictional line it creates additional steps in the process, and it slows down that whole reporting process.”

She also noted the constraints of temporary labor laws, unemployment and pay have made employing qualified contract contact tracers difficult this year.

“Some (health departments) discovered, well, we really can’t get these positions filled,” she explained. “And that’s been our challenge. So we shifted, initially we were planning that we would use contractors. And then, you know, for the longest time we didn’t have it, we didn’t need them.”

Summer case counts remained marginally low in Washington County in comparison to other more populated counties across the state, but as the weather turned colder and folks gathered indoors, confirmed case counts increased.

Now, we look to the winter holidays.

“Think about gifts that we give to one another,” Goon said.

She suggested vigilance in testing before traveling, being proactive in monitoring symptoms and follow-up with medical professionals.

“Many cases of Mid-Ohio Valley are crud, aren’t the crud, they’re the COVID,” she said, asking families to monitor all symptoms, check temperatures and repeatedly wash hands.

She encouraged small gatherings, too, and connecting via digital technology this season.

“This is one year where we can be giving unintended gifts,” she said. “That means that person isn’t there next year for our gift. And so what is the gift of your presence this year? Or is it their presence next year?”

Janelle Patterson may be reached at jpatterson@mariettatimes.com.

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