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As COVID Cases Mount, Mass. Officials Face Renewed Calls For More Data

As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Massachusetts, the call for more data about the spread has grown. But the state has removed some key measurements from public view, and it's not clear why.

Hospitalizations By Age

Once a staple of Massachusetts COVID data reports, the Department of Public Health no longer breaks down hospitalizations by age group. As NBC Boston notes, that information was available through June but was removed, along with several other key metrics, after July 1.

When NBC reporter Kathryn Sotnik asked DPH why the measure was removed, state health officials did not answer directly, opting instead to provide the following statement:

“The Commonwealth maintains one of the most robust and comprehensive public data reports on COVID-19 in the nation and has continued to regularly review and adjust its reporting to improve metrics as impacts of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth has evolved.”

That statement, word-for-word, was part of the department's June 30 press release announcing the changes in data reporting.

Risk By Community

The state once based decisions about testing and vaccination pushes on whether municipalities were listed as high risk according to a formula that included community size, positive rate and cases over the previous 14 days. The formula itself was hard to parse but the result was simple: A map that marked cities and towns as red for higher risk of transmission, yellow for medium risk and green for lower risk.

That visual hierarchy was also eliminated last month, though the state still provides much of the underlying data. WBUR has updated its own COVID data page with a map that measures cases per capita (per 100,000 residents) in each town.

Cases In Schools

State education officials told MassLive's Melissa Hanson that they do not intend to provide cases numbers by school, though individual districts are free to report their own numbers. That news comes as districts and parents across the state try to sort out their own mask policies ahead of a fast-approaching new school year. It's similar to last year's pre-Labor Day scramble, though the conversation then focused on remote vs. in-person learning.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is providing more rapid tests to schools this year. It is also planning a "test and stay" system whereby asymptomatic students and staff who have had close contact with an infected person can remain in class, provided they continue to produce negative test results.

Demographic And Equity Data Tracking

Several media and advocacy groups, including The Boston Globe editorial board and the Vaccine Equity Now Coalition, recently have called upon the state to improve its reporting around demographic information and COVID-19.

The Globe editorial board pointed to the efforts of researchers in and around Provincetown to identify the post-holiday outbreak in the resort town, which ultimately moved the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change its own recommendation on face coverings. The board echoed calls by others that the state start tracking and releasing sexual orientation and gender identity data as part of its COVID information releases.

The coalition, meanwhile, demanded the state resume its reporting of demographic information of people hospitalized. According to Boston.com's Nik DeCosta-Klipa, the state said it decided to discontinue the data releases because the information collected was incomplete and therefore not reliable.

The state does provide age, race and ethnicity data in its weekly vaccine report, and for cases and death in the report issued each weekday.

Errors In Western Mass. Vaccination Data

Because the state has tracked vaccinations by zip code rather than community name, lots of cities and towns that share zip codes have been flummoxed by the numbers they see. As New England Public Media's Karen Brown wrote, Buckland, which has had significant and sustained vaccination campaigns has been greeted with data that shows nearly no vaccinated residents.

Data for neighboring Shelburne, meanwhile, shows more vaccinated residents than people who live in town. Why? The communities share a zip code, and the vaccine data is being tracked to just one of them. The state told Brown it is exploring ways to improve its reporting "in the future."

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