Nine areas of data we need to manage the pandemic

PCR testing has greatly declined in recent months; we need new data sources to help replace the information we got from it. Chart via the CDC.

Last week, I received a question from my grandmother. She had just read my TIME story about BA.4 and BA.5, and was feeling pessimistic about the future. “Do you think we’ll ever get control of this pandemic?” she asked.

This is a complicated question. And it’s one that I’ve been reflecting on as well, as I approach the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 Data Dispatch and consider how this publication might shift to meet the current phase of the pandemic. I am not an infectious disease or public health expert, but I wanted to share a few thoughts on this; to stay in my data lane, I’m focusing on data that could help the U.S. better manage COVID-19.

The coronavirus is going to continue mutating, evolving past immune system defenses built by prior infection and vaccination. Scientists will need to continue updating vaccines and treatments to match the virus, or we’ll need a next-generation vaccine that can protect against all coronavirus variants.

Candidates for such a vaccine, called a “pan-coronavirus vaccine,” are under development by the U.S. Army and at several other academic labs and pharmaceutical companies. But until a pan-coronavirus vaccine becomes available, we’ll need to continue tracking new variants and the surges they produce. We also need to better track Long COVID, a condition that our current vaccines do not protect well against.

Eventually, COVID-19 will likely be just another respiratory virus that we watch out for during colder months and large indoor gatherings, broadly considered “endemic” by scientists. But it’s important to note—as Dr. Ellie Murray did in her excellent Twitter thread about how pandemics end—that endemicity does not mean we stop tracking COVID-19. In fact, thousands of people work to monitor and respond to another endemic virus, the flu.

With that in mind, here are nine categories of data that could help manage the pandemic:

  • More comprehensive wastewater surveillance: As I’ve written here and at FiveThirtyEight, sewers can offer a lot of COVID-19 information through a pipeline that’s unbiased and does not depend on testing access. But wastewater monitoring continues to be spotty across the country, as the surveillance can be challenging to set up—and more challenging for public health officials to act on. Also, current monitoring methods exclude those 21 million households that are not connected to public sewers. As wastewater surveillance expands, we will better be able to pinpoint new surges right as they’re starting.
  • Variant surveillance from wastewater: Most of the U.S.’s data on circulating variants currently comes from a selection of PCR test samples that are run through genomic sequencing tests. But this process is expensive, and the pool of samples is dwindling as more people use at-home rapid tests rather than PCR. It could be cheaper and more comprehensive to sequence samples from wastewater instead, Marc Johnson explained to me recently. This is another important aspect of expanding our wastewater monitoring.
  • Testing random samples: Another way to make up for the data lost by less popular PCR testing is conducting surveillance tests on random samples of people, either in the U.S. overall or in specific cities and states. This type of testing would provide us with more information on who is getting sick, allowing public health departments to respond accordingly. The U.K.’s Office for National Statistics conducts regular surveys like this, which could serve as a model for the U.S.
  • More demographic data: Related to random sample testing: the U.S. COVID-19 response still needs more information on who is most impacted by the pandemic, as well as who needs better access to vaccines and treatments. Random sampling and surveys, as well as demographic data connected to distributions of treatments like Paxlovid, could help address this need.
  • Vaccine effectiveness data: I have written a lot about how the U.S. does not have good data on how well our COVID-19 vaccines work, thanks to our fractured public health system. This lack of data makes it difficult for us to identify when vaccines need to be updated, or who needs another round of booster shots. Connecting more vaccination databases to data recording cases, hospitalizations, and Long COVID would better inform decision-making about boosters.
  • Air quality monitoring: Another type of data collection to better inform decision-making is tracking carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the air. These metrics can show how well-ventilated (or poorly-ventilated) a space is, providing information about whether further upgrades or layers of safety measures are needed. For example, I’ve seen experts bring air monitors on planes, citing poor-quality air as a reason to continue wearing a mask. Similarly, the Boston public school district has installed air monitors throughout its buildings and publishes the data on a public dashboard.
  • Tracking animal reservoirs: One potential source for new coronavirus variants is that the virus can jump from humans into animals, mutate in an animal population, and then jump back into humans. This has happened in the U.S. at least once: a strain from minks infected people in Michigan last year. But the U.S. is not requiring testing or any mandatory tracking of COVID-19 cases in animals that we know are susceptible to COVID-19. Better surveillance in this area could help us catch variants.
  • Better Long COVID surveillance: For me personally, knowledge of Long COVID is a big reason why I remain as cautious about COVID-19 as I am. Long COVID patients and advocates often say that if more people understood the ramifications of this long-term condition, they might be more motivated to take precautions; I think better prevalence data would help a lot with this. (The Census and CDC just made great strides in this area; more on that later in the issue.) Similarly, better data on how the condition impacts people would help in developing treatments—which will be crucial for getting the pandemic under control.
  • More accurate death certificates: The true toll of the pandemic goes beyond official COVID-19 deaths, as the Documenting COVID-19 project has discussed at length in our Uncounted investigation. If we had a better accounting of everyone whose deaths were tied to COVID-19, directly or indirectly, that could be another motivator for people to continue taking safety precautions and protecting their communities.

If you are working to improve data collection in any of these areas—or if you know a project that is—please reach out! These are all topics that I would love to report on further in the coming months.

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