(NEW YORK) — After 16 months of coronavirus-related restrictions and requirements — mask mandates, social distancing, extensive state of emergencies — nearly every jurisdiction in the country has now moved to ease up or, for some, completely lift them.
The move comes as many communities attempt to begin to return to some sense of pre-pandemic normalcy, following a 95% drop in the number of cases since the beginning of the year when infections peaked at over 250,000 cases a day.
Less than 12,000 patients are hospitalized with the virus across the country — a stark difference from the early months of 2021, when 10 times that amount were hospitalized nationwide.
Despite the hopeful news, health experts suggest that current metrics do not tell the full story of the United States’ continued struggle with COVID-19.
According to an ABC News survey of state COVID-19 information dashboards, more than two dozen states have now either opted to no longer offer daily statistical coronavirus updates or plan to end daily reports in the coming weeks, a choice which has been a source of great concern for health experts as the more virulent delta variant spreads.
“Without real-time reporting, we are essentially flying blind as to the state of the pandemic. Lack of timely surveillance data will create blind spots and potentially a false sense of security as we struggle with vaccination uptake and the rise of new variants,” said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor.
Some of these states have moved to offer only weekday updates, others are reporting metrics every few days, and a few are now only offering weekly breakdowns. While state officials insist they will continue to monitor data, the frequency of public updates will be limited.
The importance of daily data cannot be overstated, said Beth Blauer, executive director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins University, in a post earlier this month. Data provided by the states has “led to major policy decisions across all levels of government and influenced the behavior and decisions of many Americans.”
Blauer urged officials to “stay the course of daily reporting, and not allow their data to go ‘stale’ by releasing it infrequently.”
One of the states that has moved to shift to a more infrequent reporting schedule is Florida. Although it is still reporting the highest total number of coronavirus cases in the country, earlier this month it became the first large state to end its daily coronavirus report, and move to a weekly model.
“Florida has transitioned into the next phase of the COVID-19 response,” a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Health said in a statement to ABC News, stressing that the department remains committed to infectious disease control, surveillance and prevention.
The erratic data reporting comes as a growing list of states see upticks in their COVID-19 case metrics. In the last seven days, 19 states have reported an increase of 10% of more in their daily case average. Several states, including Alabama and Nevada, have seen their case metrics double over the last two weeks, although numbers still remain significantly lower than at their peak earlier this winter.
Some health experts are concerned that the lack of daily data, which plays a critical role in determining response to the virus, could mask potentially dangerous new outbreaks, particularly in areas of low vaccination rates.
“I’m extremely concerned that we’re repeating history,” said Maureen Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Columbia University, pointing to the U.S.’s “failure to react” in early 2020, when the virus was first spreading across the globe.
“We saw it coming yet failed to react and prepare in a meaningful way. Now we’re watching the delta variant charge through countries like Israel and the U.K., which have much higher vaccination rates than the U.S. Why we think this variant won’t wreak havoc in the U.S. is beyond me,” she said.
Falling coronavirus metrics have led some officials to declare victory against the virus; however, a number of experts suggest the country’s current COVID-19 figure may be higher than reported.
“With fewer public health departments reporting daily, we risk relying on data that represents a distorted view of the true burden of illness. An undercount in cases undermines the legitimacy of public health reporting and may mask any early indications of a surge, especially in unvaccinated populations,” said Brownstein.
National data has been impacted as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aggregates state data as it is released, and thus, the agency’s totals are often impacted by delays in state updates. Additionally, the agency is no longer offering case and death data updates on weekends.
In recent months, as officials have reallocated resources and efforts to state vaccination drives, testing levels have also plummeted.
The nation is now recording around 600,000 coronavirus tests a day, significantly lower than the nearly two million tests a day the U.S. was reporting at the beginning of the year, another cause for concern for health officials who have repeatedly warned that drops in testing could lead to missed infections and subsequent spread.
“While we realized the value of testing and reporting at scale far too late in the pandemic, we are now repeating these mistakes by winding down public health efforts far too soon,” added Brownstein.
Even so, many states continue to close testing sites, including Iowa, which will cease operations of its statewide testing program later this month. Less than 50% of Iowa’s total population is fully vaccinated.
In other states, like Utah, health officials are still urging residents to get tested, as the state faces renewed concerns over rising coronavirus cases, with a 73% increase in cases over the last four weeks.
The number of people getting tested for COVID-19 has decreased dramatically in recent months, the Utah Department of Health reported on Tuesday, from over 32,000 weekly cases in mid-November, to approximately 5,900 tests conducted the week of June 14.
“The pandemic isn’t over yet. In fact, now that new variants are circulating and some are even more transmissible, finding out if you’re positive and isolating can prevent you from exposing others,” the department said in a press release on Tuesday.
Earlier this week, the CDC reported that the highly infectious delta variant, which has been found in all 50 states, is now estimated to account for 26.1% of new cases across the country.
It is still unclear exactly how widespread the delta variant is, because U.S. genomic sequencing also remains low across the country.
“I am disappointed that we’re not treating this adversary with the respect it deserves,” Miller said. “Now, when cases are low and traditional outbreak investigations and contact tracing could be a reality, we’re dropping the ball.”
Despite health officials’ pleas for more Americans to get vaccinated to curtail the spread of the delta strain and other concerning variants, the U.S. continues to struggle with falling vaccination numbers.
Over 45% of the total population has still yet to be vaccinated with their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and according to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, approximately 1,000 counties in the U.S. have vaccination coverage of less than 30%.
Current evidence suggests that full dosage of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines is effective against the delta variant. According to a recent U.K. study, two doses of the Pfizer vaccine offered 88% protection, and earlier this week, Moderna had released new preliminary data, not yet peer reviewed, in which the company’s vaccine appeared to work against all concerning variants, including the delta variant.
In an effort to prevent potential outbreaks, the White House COVID-19 response team reported on Thursday that it would be intensifying efforts in some high-risk communities to help states prevent, detect and respond to hotspots among the unvaccinated by mobilizing COVID-19 surge response teams to be at the ready to deploy federal resources and, where needed, federal personnel.
Miller asserted, however, that the country’s current vaccination level “absolutely” does not provide enough protection to have shifted into a new phase of less testing and surveillance of the virus.
“Denial didn’t work when it first came to the U.S. or last summer when it hit the South or last winter when it hit everywhere. Sadly, it’s places with low vaccination rates that will bear the brunt of this round of infections. These are the same places that will lack testing. They won’t know that it’s hit them until it’s too late,” Miller concluded.
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