In the US, each state decides how it reports findings from covid-19 tests. The result is a chaotic system that’s hurting our response to the pandemic.
MIT Technology Review | May 7, 2020
By Neel V. Patel
Imagine you’re an epidemiologist or public health expert in the US during the current crisis. Senior elected officials have just contacted you to ask your advice on whether it’s safe to ease some lockdown restrictions. To prepare your answer, you will need to take a closer look at what the covid-19 testing data says.
Getting this data means going to the health department website of each jurisdiction in question (and the neighboring ones), pulling up the information separately, and then trying to collate it all. You’ll have to pray the information is up to date, since there’s no guarantee. And you might even have to contact the departments directly and make a special request if you’re looking for numbers and information not readily available on their websites. The entire process will be a long, drawn-out, frustrating affair. And you might not even get what you want.
Why? Because public health is a decentralized system in the US. In the case of covid-19, there’s no consistent standard for how states should collect and report the data. Individual states and their own health departments decide how they want to handle testing—including how to collect, organize, and report the results. And that can be a problem.
Eric Perakslis, a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke, led efforts in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and 2015. He says the biggest lesson he learned was that “getting on the ground sooner with something smaller was more valuable than waiting for something bigger later.” Even if you’re left trying to standardize testing data with pen and paper and just a few people, that’s better than holding out for a “killer app” to hit the market in several months.