States are reporting inconsistent, incomplete COVID-19 data, analysis finds

The federal government has left state-level COVID-19 reporting and dashboards up to the states, and the lack of standardization has led to inconsistent and incomplete data reporting, according to an analysis led by former CDC Director Tom Friedan.

The “Tracking COVID-19 in the United States” report from Resolve and Vital Strategies, and endorsed by several organizations, including the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Health Security, analyzed the state data dashboards between June 30 and July 14 to see how often best practices are followed.

The report examined whether state dashboards followed predefined best practices for reporting data, including timelines and presentation as well as what data was available. The analysis found all states have dashboards, and most are powered by visualization software, including ArcGIS, Tableau and Microsoft Power BI. The researchers looked for whether the dashboards had clear organization, information on health equity, daily updates, clear labels on data and graphics, as well as smoothing or averaging data over time.

“Many of the dashboards did not meet these best practices, as they were overly complex to navigate, and even experienced health researchers had difficulty finding key information,” the report authors concluded.

Some states have multiple COVID-19 dashboards that don’t link to each other, and 20 percent of the state dashboards didn’t regularly update by 5 p.m. local time, the report stated.

The most commonly missing data was related to contact tracing and testing, and no states are reporting polymerase chain reaction test turnaround time. There are 18 percent of state dashboards that report influenza-like illness in their COVID-19 dashboards, and 37 percent report COVID-like illness data. The report authors recommended all states report this data as part of early detection efforts.

About 40 percent of state dashboards didn’t report information beyond new or cumulative confirmed cases, and some states did not specify whether the case was probable or confirmed. The dashboards also vary in how they assign dates to the cases, which could be the date of symptom onset, date symptoms were reported, or the date the lab tests were collected.

Finally, there is a lack of standardization in reporting demographic information. Three state dashboards do not include this information. Among the states that do have demographic information, most only stratify cumulative data, although the best practice is reporting that data weekly.

“In our review of public data dashboards from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, we found that the data reported is inconsistent, incomplete and inaccessible in most locations,” the report authors wrote. “There is high variability in the data presented, the way it is presented and the level of information shared.”

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