The New Frontier of COVID Data: Making Evidence-Based Decisions in a Time of Less Evidence


Two years into the pandemic, Manitoba ended the daily release of COVID-19 data. Public Health last updated its familiar COVID cases and risk dashboard on Friday and now plans to remove the page from the provincial website.

For some Manitobans, checking this dashboard was part of a daily ritual, especially back when the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and percentage testing positive served as reliable indicators of the state of the pandemic. .

These measures ceased to be relevant at the end of 2021, when the highly transmissible variant of Omicron exceeded the province’s ability to test the population for COVID.

During the first week of January, COVID hospitalizations, COVID ICU cases and COVID deaths were the only useful numbers on this page, even though they are what epidemiologists call lagging indicators: numbers that tell us something. thing about how COVID was spreading several weeks in the past.

Indeed, it takes a few days to get infected with COVID, longer to get sick, and even longer to get sick enough to need hospital care or die. A picture of COVID transmission can be inferred in part from the changing number of hospitalizations and deaths.

That means these numbers continue to serve a purpose, especially in conjunction with other metrics like workplace absenteeism reports and monitoring Winnipeg’s sewage for signs of the virus that causes COVID.

Manitoba Public Health has never released data on absenteeism reports. Public Health also insists it cannot release Winnipeg’s sewage data because that analysis is done by the federal government, which releases its data once a month.

COVID-related hospitalization and death counts, meanwhile, will only be reported once a week due to public health’s determination that COVID-19 is becoming an endemic disease.

“Real-time data is less critical with endemic reports. Instead, we would focus on key pieces of information that will provide the most relevant epidemiological evidence and data for the public and policy makers,” said Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s deputy provincial public health officer, on March 2.

“Manitobans will see this change in the days ahead as we focus on reporting on key trends, more vulnerable settings and other important indicators of COVID activity and severity in our province. COVID information will continue to be transparent and publicly available, but that’s part of a response that also needs to change.”

Restore trust

The transparency of the data remains to be seen. While it is true that the number of hospitalizations for a single day or the number of deaths for a single day does not tell much to the public, the compilation of daily statistics allows journalists, public health scientists in outside government and other academics to discern long-term trends.

Withholding, managing or even massaging this data would not serve to restore public trust in government. That confidence was severely diminished in this province after Manitoba failed to manage the spread of COVID-19 during the second and third waves of the pandemic.

On March 16, the provincial chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said Manitobans can assess their own safety risk by visiting online resources. (CTV/Winnipeg TV Video Group)

Nonetheless, public health suggests that releasing the data weekly will suffice for the needs of Manitobans who remain vulnerable to COVID-19 and must determine for themselves the safety of any activity outside their homes.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, said it’s up to individuals to make that decision for themselves.

“We were able to change our approach from strict public health measures to public health recommendations. This advice is now available online to help people make their own decisions to assess their level of risk when they are It’s about things like mask-wearing, physical distancing and how many people are comfortable gathering together,” Roussin said on March 16.

The province declined requests from CBC News to speak to Roussin and Atwal this week about how individuals are supposed to assess COVID-19 risk and the transparency of COVID-19 data.

The province has also refused repeated requests to release at least a summary of the interim wastewater monitoring data the federal government has provided to Manitoba. All the province will say is that it expects another month of Winnipeg data to be released on a federal website on March 31.

To be clear, the province publishes information collected by federal entities all the time. Provincial flood forecasts incorporate Environment Canada forecasts. Provincial budgets include notes on Bank of Canada expectations.

The concentration of COVID viral loads in Winnipeg’s sewage is no state secret. Is it in place? I sit? Is it flat? Who knows. Manitoba will not even publish a general characterization.

In any case, sewage monitoring data alone is just one indicator that paints a broader picture of COVID transmission. It happens to be the only indicator that tells us anything in real time.

In the end, public health officials promised more transparency to help Manitobans make decisions, offered less instead, and then refused to explain the severance.