HHS releases long-awaited national profile reports

For months, public health advocates have called on the federal government to release in-depth data reports that are compiled internally by the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The reports include counts of COVID-19 cases, deaths, and tests, as well as test positivity calculations. In addition to state-level data, the reports feature county-level data and even data for individual metropolitan areas, color-coded according to risk levels for each region. The reports have also drawn on these data to provide specific recommendations for each state. They have been a key piece of the federal government’s support for governors and other state leaders—but they haven’t been shared with the public.

Liz Essley Whyte and her colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity have obtained copies of many of these reports and made them publicly available. But the scattered PDFs—often posted for only a few states at a time—provided only small snapshots from the vast trove of data HHS was using behind the scenes.

This past Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) began releasing all national COVID-19 reports and the data behind them. Now officially called “COVID-19 Community Profile Reports,” the reports are expected to be released as PDFs and spreadsheets every day.

I asked Liz Essley Whyte why this release—one that she’s spent months pushing for—is so important. Here’s what she said:

This release has local data that is so important for helping people make daily decisions about what’s safe. It also gives us the same picture of the pandemic that our federal government does, allowing us to weigh its response. It’s data that was assembled with taxpayer dollars and that affects everyone’s lives, so it was past time for it to be made public. I’m very glad it’s out there now. I think if it’s pursuing full transparency the White House should also make public the policy recommendations it gives to states weekly in the governors’ reports, alongside this helpful data.

Whyte has also provided a tour of the information available in these reports, specifically geared towards local journalists who might want to use them.

Here’s my own tour, a.k.a. why I’m excited about this new dataset:

  • Data on metropolitan areas: Other sources were compiling state- and county-level data prior to Friday, but standardized data on how COVID-19 is impacting America’s cities were basically impossible to find. This new dataset includes information on over 900 metropolitan and micropolitan areas, making it much easier to compare outbreaks in urban centers.
  • Standardized data: One of the biggest challenges for COVID-19 data users has been a lack of consistency. Some states report every day of the week, some skip weekends. Some states report their tests using one unit, some report using another. Some states include antigen tests in their numbers, some don’t. And so on. But the HHS can smooth out these inconsistencies internally, as national testing laboratories and state public health departments are all required to report in the same way. What I’m saying is, this new report allows us to do something we haven’t been able to reliably do since the start of the pandemic: compare testing numbers across states.
  • Major metrics in one place: Before Friday, if I wanted case and death numbers by county, I’d go to the New York Times, while if I wanted testing numbers by county, I’d go to the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The scattered nature of pandemic reporting has led researchers and journalists to cobble together stories from multiple disparate sources; now, we can get three major metrics in one easy place. (This data reporter loves to only have one Excel spreadsheet open at a time.)
  • Contextual data built in: Not only does this new dataset include several important metrics in one place, it also contextualizes those metrics with key demographic information. For each state, county, and metro area in the dataset, numbers such as the share of this region living without insurance and the share of the region over age 65 are included right next to that region’s COVID-19 metrics. Two indices that indicate the region’s demographic vulnerability to the virus are also included: the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index and the Surgo Foundation’s COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index. I covered both in my November 29 issue.
  • Rankings for policymakers: In addition to raw counts of cases, deaths, and tests, the Community Profile Reports include calculated values that make it easy for local leaders to see how their communities compare. The reports rank states according to their cases per 100,000 population, positivity rate (for PCR tests), hospital admissions, and other metrics. They highlight key cities that demand attention and aid, such as Phoenix, Arizona and Nashville, Tennessee. They even forecast death totals based on current case counts—a morbid metric, but a useful one nonetheless.
  • More transparency: Like the facility-level hospitalization dataset released last week, the Community Profile Reports signify that the HHS is finally stepping up to provide the American public with the information that informs key public health decisions. The absence of national data during this pandemic was never meant to be filled permanently by journalists or volunteer data-gatherers—the federal government is built for this work. Journalists are, instead, built to watch this work closely and hold it accountable.

In the agency’s Friday press release, HHS states:

HHS believes in the power of open data and transparency. By publicly posting the reports that our own response teams use and by having others outside of the federal response use the information, the data will only get better.

As of Saturday night, the dataset has already been downloaded nearly 6,000 times. That’s nearly 6,000 people who can use these data and make them better—and the number will only grow.

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