By Erin Petenko/VTDigger
The Vermont Department of Health plans to “phase out” the Covid-19 case dashboard that has been the centerpiece of its data reporting since March 2020, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a press conference Tuesday, May 10.
The dashboard — part of a collection of Covid data available on the department’s website — publishes the daily number of cases, hospitalizations, deaths and the percent positivity rate, as well as analyzing trends over time in the geography, demographics and vaccine status of Covid infections.
But Levine said the department has cautioned for months that data points such as cases and percent positivity “lack a lot of relevance at this point in time.”
“We’ve spoken many times here about data reporting and the need to focus on the larger picture of Covid: its impact on our health and on our health care systems,” he said.
Levine said the department’s epidemiologists are working on a new “Covid surveillance report,” published weekly, that would analyze Covid the way that the department analyzes other infectious diseases such as the flu.
The first surveillance report is scheduled for this Wednesday, May 18. The dashboard’s last update will also come on May 18, he said.
Included in the weekly report will be topics such as impact on hospital capacity, outbreaks, vaccination rates, wastewater surveillance and the proportion of variants over time, he said.
It might also include details on “syndromic surveillance,” the monitoring of people coming to emergency departments or health care centers with Covid-like symptoms, he said. That metric is a key data point in the department’s influenza surveillance reports.
Less clear is how Vermonters will be able to access data on cases or test positivity, the percentage of PCR tests that come back positive for Covid. Levine at first said that case trends may be included in the report, but, when asked if the reports would include weekly case counts, he said “no.”
“The widespread use of at-home tests has already made case counts much less meaningful, in addition to other data such as percent positivity,” he said. “Nor do the number of cases reflect the amount of severe disease in our communities, which is our main concern when it comes to Covid.”
He said the raw data should still be available through the Vermont Center for Geographic Information, but Vermonters shouldn’t rely on day-to-day case counts to make decisions about their individual risk.
Experts have cautioned that the lack of case data in the latest BA.2 subvariant-led surge may make it more difficult for Vermonters to take early action to prevent hospitalizations and deaths.
Wastewater data — the level of the Covid-19 virus in sewage samples taken at wastewater treatment plans — may help make up the gap once Vermont develops a more robust program for it, experts told VTDigger in April.
Levine said the latest Burlington wastewater data showed viral activity that was elevated, but not rising. Other treatment plans across the state have switched contractors and have temporarily stopped reporting data.
The department also publishes self-submitted data from Vermonters on their antigen test results. The latest update, for the week of May 1, shows a continued rise in the number of people reporting a positive antigen test.
The Dept. of Financial Regulation did not release its regular Tuesday Covid modeling update due to the loss of former commissioner Mike Pieciak, who stepped down to run for state treasurer, and another data person at the organization, Levine said.
He said cases had increased about 4% in the past week, suggesting that case growth was “static.” The state reported an average of 334 cases per day in the past week.
Hospitalizations have hit their highest level since the BA.2 surge began, according to the health department dashboard. As of Tuesday, 75 Vermonters were hospitalized with Covid, including 10 in intensive care.
The department also reported four more deaths, for a total of eight deaths so far in May. In total, 648 people have died since the pandemic began in March 2020.
The latest week of data on breakthrough cases and hospitalizations shows that the gap between vaccinated and unvaccinated Vermonters remains narrow.
Department data shows two unvaccinated Vermonters were hospitalized last week, for a rate of 1.4 hospitalizations per 100,000 unvaccinated people. That’s compared to 11 vaccinated people being hospitalized for a rate of 2.3 per 100,000 vaccinated people.
However, there are major caveats to the data. Although the department does not track its data by booster status, Levine said many vaccinated Vermonters who have been hospitalized were not up to date on their vaccines, including the first or second booster for immunocompromised Vermonters or those 50 and older.
He also said about half of Vermonters hospitalized for Covid came to the hospital for other conditions, rather than being admitted because of Covid.