Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and researchers know a lot more about how to deal with COVID-19 and what it takes to respond: vaccines, testing, treatments and public health measures.
But there are many aspects of living through this pandemic that can be confusing, especially as new variants emerge and public health guidance changes. There is so much data related to COVID-19 available that it can be hard to make sense of it all.
To get some clarity on the issue, Side Effects community engagement specialist Brittani Howell spoke with:
- Brian Dixon, Regenstrief Institute’s Director of Public Health Informatics,
- Micah Pollak, associate professor at Indiana University Northwest and director of Indiana University Northwest’s Center for Economic Education & Research,
- and Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Lauren Chapman.
The discussion was live streamed on Facebook.
When it comes to COVID-19, what data is most important for making day-to-day decisions?
To figure out where things stand with COVID-19 in your area, Pollak said it’s helpful to start by looking at case counts.
“That's kind of like the barometer of what's happening ... That's like the first sign of what's going on,” he said.
But cases don’t give the full pictures. It’s also important to consider the percentage of COVID-19 tests turning up positive — also known as the positivity rate.
“If our positivity rate is low, and cases are low, you can be pretty confident that spread is low,” Pollak said.
As much as possible, look at local data at the county level, Dixon said.
“Right now at the state level, it looks like we have a flat trend going on when it comes to COVID,” Dixon said. “But that's not the reality county by county because some counties are going up, others are coming down.”
Dixon said looking at trends and the direction things are headed is more valuable than looking at where things stand on any given day.
Is the availability of COVID-19 vaccines for children 5 and up helping reduce COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths among children?
Yes. But since vaccines for children, in particular younger age groups, have only been available for a few months, the protective effect may not be fully seen for a little while longer.
In addition to clinical trials that show the vaccine is effective at preventing symptomatic COVID cases in children, Dixon said additional studies and data suggest it’s also helping keep kids out of the hospital.
“If we just look at current hospitalizations, say during December and January for children, we saw over 400 kids be hospitalized, but only about 20 of those were vaccinated, all the rest were unvaccinated,” Dixon said. “We can look at just the raw numbers and get a good sense that indeed, vaccines are helping to keep kids out of the hospital, which is principally what vaccines are designed to do.”
As is the case with adults, COVID immunity in children wanes over time. That means kids who were vaccinated last summer may not be as protected against omicron during the latest surge.
“I think the hard part is many school districts took away some policies that were helping to protect kids last year, like requiring masks and enforcing … strict social distancing during much of the day, [which] really helped last school year,” he said.
Are there any indications that omicron is peaking?
Dixon said right now, cases in Indiana have plateaued. But he wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re at a peak.
“We knew that at some point, it would hit a plateau. And then theoretically, we would begin to decline,” Dixon said. “The challenge is that the devil is always in the details. We are seeing numbers go up in many counties, and we're seeing numbers go down in other counties.”
Pollak said he is a bit more optimistic.
“I personally think that we will see cases decline pretty rapidly for the next few weeks, into early February, but beyond that, it's almost impossible to tell,” Pollak said. “Are they going to plateau at a higher level? You know, there's some concern that's happening in England right now. …Did omicron just kind of displace delta for a while, and delta is gonna come roaring back? Or are there gonna be new variants?”
What COVID-19 data is available to the public?
The Indiana state dashboard can be found at coronavirus.in.gov. Information about positive cases, including demographic data, at the state and county level can be found on the dashboard as well as the number of hospitalizations. The Regenstrief Institute also has a dashboard that focuses on data about hospitalizations, admissions for COVID-19 and comorbidities associated with COVID-19 and demographic data on hospitalizations.
“And then for those who are real data junkies, the Indiana Management Performance Hub also produces data sets on a regular basis on their website, where you can actually download the raw data, if you will, for counts each day and breakdowns by county and by zip code and other ways if you want to try to create your own visualizations or do your own analysis of data,” Dixon said.
Pollak said unless you look at the dashboards regularly, they can be overwhelming. He suggests looking at other sites that streamline data, like covidactnow.org, a site that aggregates data from different sources at the county level. The CDC Covid Data Tracker has information about hospitalization rates for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. And the Department of Health and Human Services’s Hospitalization Use Utilization Dashboard provides data on available beds at individual hospitals.
“If you want the most recent stuff, definitely the state dashboard and Regenstrief,” Pollak said. “If you want something that's been a little bit more kind of streamlined, and everything kind of in one place, I would definitely check out some of these other third-party kind of sites.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Micah Pollak, associate professor at Indiana University Northwest and director of Indiana University Northwest’s Center for Economic Education & Research. The story has been updated with the correct spelling.