CDC shifts away from COVID-19 Community Levels with the federal emergency’s end

The CDC’s Community Levels suggest (perhaps inaccurately!) that the U.S. has little to worry about from COVID-19 right now. The agency is set to stop calculating these metrics next month.

As we’ve gotten closer to May 11, the official ending of the federal public health emergency for COVID-19, I’ve tried to collect news on how this change will impact COVID-19 data availability. We know, for example, that the CDC will lose some of its authority to collect data from state and local health agencies, and that PCR testing numbers will become even less accurate.

This week, another key change became public: the CDC will stop reporting COVID-19 Community Levels, according to reporting by Brenda Goodman at CNN. The agency is overall planning to shift from using case data to hospitalizations and wastewater surveillance.

The CDC’s Community Levels are county-level metrics based on cases and hospitalizations. In February 2022, the agency switched to these metrics from its prior Transmission Levels (which were based on cases and test positivity), and essentially changed its national COVID-19 map from bright red to pastel green-yellow-orange overnight.

Community Levels have generally made the U.S.’s COVID-19 situation look better than it really is over the last year, since these metrics relied on hospitalizations, a lagging indicator, and were set to high thresholds for recommending safety measures. Even so, the metrics gave Americans an easy way to look at the COVID-19 situation in their county or region.

On May 11, that county-level information will no longer be available, according to Goodman’s reporting. When the public health emergency ends, the CDC will no longer be able to require COVID-19 testing labs to report their results—so this already-spotty information will become even less accurate. While test results at the national level might still be helpful for following general trends, it will be harder to interpret more local data.

“We’re not going to lose complete surveillance, but we will lose that hyperlocal sensitivity to it perhaps,” an anonymous source at the CDC told Goodman. These more local metrics “simply cannot be sustained” due to reporting changes, the source said.

In absence of county-level case data, the CDC plans on utilizing hospitalizations and wastewater surveillance to track COVID-19, according to the CNN report. The agency might focus on tracking COVID-19 at specific healthcare settings in a reporting network, similar to its surveillance for endemic diseases like flu and RSV, rather than trying to count every single severe COVID-19 case.

Hospitalization data tend to lag behind cases, so wastewater surveillance will be important to provide early warnings about potential new coronavirus variants or surges. However, the country’s wastewater surveillance network is still patchy: some states have a sewage testing site in every county, while others only have a handful. Our data will be biased, based on which health departments have invested in this technology.

It’s unsurprising to see the CDC plan this COVID-19 reporting change, given the powers it will lose on May 11. But I’m still disappointed. I’ve followed the U.S.’s incomplete surveillance for endemic diseases, and I hoped that continued COVID-19 tracking would provide an opportunity for improvement. Instead, it looks like we’re going to revert to something like our flu tracking, with wastewater surveillance unevenly tacked on.

The May 11 changes will inevitably have a huge impact on the Americans who are still trying to stay safe from COVID-19, especially those with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe symptoms. Without reliable data, people will be unable to identify when spread is high or low in their community. I expect some will simply shrug off the risks (but may regret that choice later), while others will anticipate that COVID-19 is everywhere, all the time, and retreat from public activities.

And from the public health perspective, less data will make it harder to identify concerning new variants or potential surges. For more on these challenges, I recommend this article by KFF Health News reporter Sam Whitehead, published in CNN and other outlets.

“We’re all less safe when there’s not the national amassing of this information in a timely and coherent way,” Anne Schuchat, former principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Whitehead.

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