Where are N.J. residents contracting COVID-19 the most? The data doesn’t tell the whole story.
It is a key question as New Jersey looks to prevent coronavirus from spreading further in the community: Where are residents contracting the disease?
Is the virus passing between coaches and athletes during youth sports? Or between workers coming to the office? Are diners picking up the illness at restaurants and bars, or gamblers at casinos? Knowing which of those is most prevalent could prove critical to policymakers as they weigh whether to implement new restrictions, or ease already existing ones.
Earlier this month, the Department of Health offered a statistical peek into the kinds of places where it believes COVID-19 is being transmitted. At Gov. Phil Murphy’s regular news briefing, the government presented two charts that broke down where the disease was spreading in the community, with 33% of outbreaks over the month of October attributed to sports teams, and workplaces and day care facilities also holding double-digit percentages.
But the strength of that data is uncertain. In a month that averaged more than 975 new cases a day, the stats were based on 51 outbreaks and did not describe how extensive they were beyond their criteria for making the list: at least three linked infections that did not involve family members or other housemates.
In defining what constitutes a community-based outbreak, meanwhile, the state also excluded some well-known potential hotspots — schools, health care and congregate living like nursing homes — which would likely alter the portrait.
In offering the breakdowns on Nov. 12, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli gave nod to their limitations, saying they were based on the results of contact tracing, which officials complain only about 4 in 10 residents cooperate with.
The data “would be more complete if members of the public answered the call from the contact tracers and shared information on who they’ve been with, who they’ve been in contact with and where they’ve been,” Persichilli said. “This information is vital to protecting the health of others and containing the spread of the virus.”
The hurdles point to data challenges that continue eight months into the pandemic as a second wave breaks: Even as New Jersey publishes reams of numbers each day on where the contagion stands, some of that data has gaps or is difficult to synchronize with the larger picture.
Still, there is value in those figures, even if they are not statistically the strongest, said Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist at the Rutgers School of Public Health. It is not surprising that sports would be a place of transmission, considering contact between players and limitations on mask wearing, he said. As a parent of a 4-year-old, Raymond said he was interested to see day cares on the chart.
“From a public health perspective, I’d say this is what we got; this is the best we have so let’s use this to guide us,” Raymond said. “If this is what we have to work with to make decisions, this is what we have to work with.”
In a written statement Friday, the Department of Health underscored that it is not always possible to identify the source of a given infection.
“We know if someone tests positive, but even to that person, it may not be clear when or how they were exposed,” spokeswoman Dawn Thomas said. “We do know that these identified outbreaks account for a small percentage of reported cases. This is both because there is a lot of community spread which would not meet the criteria for an outbreak and because outbreaks often aren’t always recognized and thus reported.”
In recent days, the state has announced further restrictions on social life that include additional limits on the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings, a ban on interstate indoor youth sports, and new restrictions on bars and restaurants. That comes as cases, hospitalizations and the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care has leaped, with officials warning it could get worse as the weather cools and Thanksgiving and the winter holidays approach.
The pandemic forced governments across the nation to build large information platforms nearly from scratch amid a public health crisis unlike any in a century. Murphy routinely insists that it is data that drives his decisions, and The COVID Tracking Project, a coronavirus information clearinghouse, gives the state an A grade in the quality of data it presents to the public.
But New Jersey has also faced criticism over its transparency, particularly in the early days of the contagion. It was a month into the pandemic before the state released a list of nursing homes with outbreaks, though the facilities have accounted for nearly half of the state’s recorded deaths. Then in July, the Department of Health began culling that list by removing any facilities that had been coronavirus free for 28 days, which critics charge prevents residents from having a full picture of nursing homes with large death tolls.
In late September, the state unveiled a dashboard to track outbreaks in schools weeks into the new school year. But the data is broken down only by county and does not name schools or school districts, or identify when the outbreaks occurred or their circumstances.
Eric Forgoston is a professor of applied mathematics at Montclair State University who is building models to predict the scope and spread of the virus. He said he and his collaborators have long been frustrated by holes in New Jersey’s data, though he called that a national problem in which some states do worse.
Accurate figures that are easily accessible to the layman are critical, especially considering the amount of disinformation in circulation about the coronavirus, Forgoston said.
“It is very important that any individual in the public can look at the data and make a reasoned statement for themselves about what they see,” Forgoston said.
He added: “Ultimately, the data is everything, right? That’s where the story is.”
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