September 25, 2022
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D.C. Council pushes health officials on timing of covid case data

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As coronavirus cases seem to be surging locally and nationally with much less surveillance than in earlier covid waves, D.C.’s legislators are arguing with local public health officials about how much case data the city should disclose to the public.

In a council meeting Friday, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) expressed unease — which many on the council share — about D.C.’s practice of publishing a modest amount of data on the virus once a week, rather than every weekday as the health department did for nearly two years.

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Mendelson noted that the city’s reported rate of new weekly cases per 100,000 residents shot up from 168 to 298 over the course of one week lately — its highest level since the January omicron surge.

“If this is going to grow, to spike — don’t we want to know more recently than once a week?” Mendelson asked.

Patrick Ashley, the health department’s director of emergency response, answered by saying residents don’t need to monitor daily fluctuations in data. “Allow the public health experts to do what they do best and look at the trend,” Ashley said.

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He said in an interview later that though government leaders have urged people to look to coronavirus case data to make decisions about what risks to take, he views weekly data as best. “We want individuals to make risk-based decisions based on trends, so that daily interpretation of data doesn’t allow people to understand what’s going on in the community. Some days there’s more tests or less tests,” he said. “They need to look at it holistically.”

Tensions have risen between the council and health department since early May, when the department — which had been reporting new coronavirus cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at least weekly and sometimes daily — stopped reporting cases altogether for 12 days.

A day after The Washington Post published a story on the missing data, the city started sending numbers to the CDC again. Still, six members of the council sent a letter to D.C. Health expressing concern.

On Friday, Axios reported that Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt had responded, discussing the reasons for the gap in data reporting and asking council members to refrain in the future from publicly questioning her agency. “The recent public comments by several Councilmembers have had the unfortunate effect of undercutting trust in DC Health and public health,” she wrote.

Nesbitt wrote that less-frequent weekly reporting protects the department’s exhausted workforce, who have “experienced over two years of 12+ hour workdays, attacks — both verbal and physical — on public health professionals, and significant misinformation about public health and our work. In response to that, and shifting goals of the pandemic response, public health agencies throughout the United States have reoriented how they share data to effectively inform the public of their risk without straining an already reduced public health workforce.”

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Shortly after Nesbitt’s letter, council members had a meeting with Ashley and city administrator Kevin Donahue — the first time in several weeks that the council’s meeting to question top city leaders about the pandemic, which used to occur every Friday, was held.

“There’s really been an information vacuum,” council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) said, referring to the repeated cancellations of the Friday pandemic meetings and difficulty she said members have had getting answers to their emails to mayoral officials. “We try to do everything we can and then send a formal letter.”

“We don’t want a ‘media war,’ ” Nadeau said. “We’re just trying to get answers for our constituents who are begging us, after that Washington Post story about the CDC data, to get it.”

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Council members did get some answers on Friday, though not all that they sought.

Christina Henderson (I-At Large) asked at what level of cases the city’s schools might require masks again. Ashley said there was no imminent plan to reinstate the requirement. Donahue noted, “From the beginning, we’ve not relied on a single metric or even a binding trigger that might be a set of metrics.”

Ashley said that at the outset of the call — when journalists were not able to listen for about 20 minutes, because the city had given them the wrong password for the meeting — he described to the council members the gap in reporting to the CDC. He said the city has an automated line to the CDC that reports the raw number of positive tests, and a manual feed that requires a health worker to clean up the data, for example, by removing multiple tests from a person who got tested several times. The automated reporting continued, but the manual reporting stopped and has now resumed, he said.

Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) asked for data on the number of police, firefighters and other critical city employees who have come down with covid — information that the city had published regularly for almost two years but stopped at the end of February.

Donahue said that the city does “track internally at a less frequent basis than daily” and that “the increases within those agencies have been much less significant than increases in the public at large.” But presenting those statistics publicly, he said, was too “time-consuming for a team that was stretched pretty thin.”

Donahue also said he was not prepared to answer other questions Allen submitted in advance, including the number of D.C. schools that have had to simulcast classroom lessons because more than a quarter of students in the class are home quarantined, and the portion of preschoolers who participate in recommended weekly coronavirus testing.

A city website suggests that 1,747 out of 6,440 3- and 4-year-olds — to whom the District offers weekly tests since they are too young to get vaccinated — got tested last week. But Donahue said he thought the number might actually be about twice as high.

Though Donahue said he would send Allen the answers later, Allen expressed frustration that although he submitted his questions in advance, Donahue did not come prepared with the answers. That left him without the opportunity to ask follow-up questions until the next such meeting, two weeks away, Allen noted.

As if the coronavirus weren’t enough, one council member raised the specter of another virus. Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) asked: Should D.C. residents worry about monkeypox?

“I think ‘concern’ is probably a little aggressive at this point,” Ashley reassured him. “It is something that public health officials are watching very closely.”



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