Two weeks ago, I reported that Florida had made a big change to its COVID-19 data reporting: the state switched from daily updates to weekly updates. Previously, Florida had maintained a dashboard and released detailed PDF reports each day; now, the state releases PDF reports once a week on Fridays.
Other states are making similar changes. Only about half of states update their COVID-19 data every day, NPR reported last week. Florida is the only state to cut back to only one update a week, but several others now skip updating on weekends or otherwise reduce their reporting load.
It’s important to note, however, that these changes are not all new. There have always been states that skipped updating—or published limited updates—on weekends, going back to spring 2020. And, for a long time, Kansas was the least-frequent-reporting state: for many months, it’s only published updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. More states started skipping weekends earlier in 2021, though, at the same time as many state public health agencies were spinning up vaccination dashboards in addition to their existing COVID-19 reporting systems.
When states do not update their data every day, journalists and researchers are less able to precisely track COVID-19 developments and identify trends. John Hopkins’ Beth Blauer compared this challenge to viewing a photo in low resolution instead of high resolution: it’s harder to see a pattern when you’re not getting as much detail.
Even for those states that do publish updates every day, though, there are still challenges inherent in interpreting data that naturally fluctuate over the course of a week. New York might update its COVID-19 data every day, for example, but some test sites in New York are closed on weekends—leading to natural dips in testing and case numbers on those days, followed by higher numbers in the middle of the week. COVID Tracking Project volunteer Hannah Hoffman has written about this phenomenon in detail.
Still, even as states start to skip days or make their reporting less precise, the CDC and HHS continue to update their national COVID-19 datasets daily. There are admittedly many discrepancies between federal and state data—in large part because of the lack of federal leadership early in the pandemic—but the federal data are now highly standardized and reliable at a level that would be incredibly difficult to get from states. This is why I personally choose to use the CDC’s dashboard for COVID-19 Data Dispatch weekly updates, rather than JHU or another source that aggregates from states.
It’s also important to acknowledge that state public health agencies have been chronically underfunded for decades before the pandemic hit—and daily data updates have been a huge timesuck for many of these agencies. If scaling down COVID-19 dashboard updates frees up some personnel and resources for a state like Alabama or South Dakota to redirect into vaccination programs, that, to me, seems worthwhile.