Georgia scales back on reporting of COVID-19 data

In this file photo from January, Georgia Tech students and employees get tested for COVID-19 at Georgia Tech’s Economic Development Building. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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In this file photo from January, Georgia Tech students and employees get tested for COVID-19 at Georgia Tech’s Economic Development Building. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Some critics say the change could cause state officials to miss early signs of a surge in cases

Georgia is joining a growing number of states scaling back on the daily public reports of COVID-19 cases. The move comes just as widely used home test kits have made it harder to follow rising cases and questions have been raised about the best way to track the spread of new variants.

Some public health officials say moving away from the regular reporting of new cases could leave Georgia in the dark about emerging outbreaks. A new subvariant of omicron, BA.2, is picking up steam in many states.

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BA.2 omicron subvariant is now the dominant COVID strain in the US

BA.2 omicron subvariant is now the dominant COVID strain in the US

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BA.2 omicron subvariant is now the dominant COVID strain in the US

“My own feeling is that this is the very worst time to stop counting,” said Dr. Richard Rothenberg, Regents’ Professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University. “We are in a grace period at the moment, with a general decline around the country but a few places are seeing an increase from BA.2, and there’s a sense that that may signal another surge.”

The Georgia Department of Public Health announced late Wednesday it will only update daily case counts for the public once a week. An agency spokeswoman said the agency will continue to collect daily case counts. The change is they will only be updated once a week rather than five days a week and displayed on the public dashboard at dph.ga.gov. The last daily update will be posted Friday and new weekly updates will begin Wednesday.

DPH said given the rise of at-home COVID tests, which do not get reported to the state, there is a greater focus on monitoring the virus through hospital admissions, hospital occupancy, and overall vaccination rates.

Georgia will become one of 20 states reporting cases on a weekly basis, according to the latest tracking by Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Georgia moved from reporting seven days a week to five days last July. Only six states are still posting daily case counts.

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In this file photo, Dr. Kathleen Toomey gives an update about COVID at State Capitol as Gov. Brian Kemp listens. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

In this file photo, Dr. Kathleen Toomey gives an update about COVID at State Capitol as Gov. Brian Kemp listens. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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In this file photo, Dr. Kathleen Toomey gives an update about COVID at State Capitol as Gov. Brian Kemp listens. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

“We believe weekly COVID reporting will continue to support a sustainable response in Georgia while informing decision-making around transmission and infection rates,” said Dr. Kathleen E. Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health in a statement. “DPH epidemiologists and the data team have worked tirelessly for more than two years to provide this information to the public. We are extremely grateful for their work and dedication.”

Georgia will continue to track and report COVID hospitalizations on a daily basis. As far as changes to the reporting of that, a spokesperson said, “not at this time.”

So far, the sharp rise of BA.2 is not leading to an uptick in severe cases in Georgia. The number of Georgians admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen to the lowest point since the earliest days of the pandemic. The number stood at 359 Thursday.

Not surprised by Georgia DPH’s decision to reduce its reporting of COVID data, Josh Michaud, associate director for Global Health Policy for Kaiser Family Foundation, said case counts have become a less reliable source for providing an up-to-date picture of the spread of the virus.

“It gives you a skewed view, only a small proportion of the population,” he said.

“But it’s not completely useless and if you move to once-a-week reporting your timing might be slower than it would be otherwise,” he said.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Michaud also believes that, back in February, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled a new strategy on masking which focuses more on tracking hospitalizations “that gave the green light to states to adopt a monitoring framework that doesn’t rely on cases as much as it used to. It was a turning point.”

The change from the CDC came at a time when omicron case counts were shattering all previous records. While hospitalizations have become a key metric, they are lagging indicators and may not capture the true toll of the virus.

Another tool gaining traction is wastewater surveillance. People with coronavirus infections shed the virus in their stool and monitoring the levels of the virus in wastewater can help gauge how widespread it is in a community, including people who have not been tested or have no symptoms. The CDC added wastewater data to its public coronavirus data tracker on Feb. 4.

Hundreds of sites in the U.S. are already participating in the CDC’s sewage analysis program, testing their water multiple times each week. But only two places in Georgia — DeKalb County and Augusta — are currently providing wastewater samples. DPH said starting this week, five additional sites in three counties will become pilot sites, but they declined to identify the site locations.

ExploreThe AJC's COVID-19 dashboard

Dr. Michael Eriksen, founding dean of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, said given all the reinfections and breakthrough cases, as well as home testing, the number of daily cases is less informative than it once was. Monitoring hospitalizations, serious disease and deaths, he said, “is a more informative and efficient way to go.”

“At a personal level, it’s still important to know if you are infected so you can act accordingly (such as masking and isolation) so as not to spread the virus, but at a population level, we’re more interested in the morbid outcomes caused by the virus and not simply the number of positive cases,” he said.

Even so, Dr. Felipe Lobelo, an epidemiologist at Kaiser Permanente of Georgia said, “it’s odd and makes no sense from an (epidemiological) perspective to not report daily if the data is still collected daily. Especially not good as we ride the BA.2 surge.”

Rothenberg agrees. And count him as someone who would like to track the data — every day.

“My sense of this is that people fervently wish for COVID to be over, so let’s ignore it and see what happens.”