IDPH changes COVID data focus

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The Illinois Department of Public Health is altering the COVID-19 data it is reporting. 

Many of these changes are due to recent CDC guidelines for tracking COVID-19. As explained in a press briefing on the matter, IDPH will now be focusing more on case rates and hospitalizations. 

“The one big change … is the shift away from test positivity and consequently case positivity, and that’s because … the CDC is no longer requiring negative antigen tests to be reported,” Dr. Arti Barnes, IDPH medical director, said in a media briefing. “They are forming the bulk of the testing that’s occurring, so we truly will no longer have the ability to accurately paint a comprehensive picture of test positivity (rates) that is population-based.” 

As the IDPH Surveillance web page explains, the case rate per 100,000 – now deemed a more adequate reflection of an area’s COVID landscape compared to test positivity – is “calculated by dividing the average of COVID-19 confirmed and probable cases reported to IDPH over the most recent seven days by the population, and multiplying by 100,000.” 

The figure is then rounded to one decimal place. 

“Test and case positivity rates were seen as a good way to monitor the level of community spread early in the pandemic,” IDPH Acting Director Amaal Tokars said. “At this stage, now that we have vaccines and effective therapies available, it is more useful to rely on data that indicates the case rate, disease severity and the level of strain on health care system to guide our public health recommendations.”

Dr. Jane Fornoff, IDPH acting chief, said in the media briefing that in addition to the seven-day rolling average of case rates per 100,000, IDPH will be able to measure the “strain on health care systems” Tokars mentioned through the measure of people who went to the hospital and were diagnosed with COVID-19, ICU bed availability, along with the weekly deaths reported. 

All of these metrics mentioned above, with the exception of ICU bed availability, are reported per county. Fornoff said the percentage of ICU beds available is reported on a regional basis as not every county has hospitals, and many cross county lines to seek hospital care. 

IDPH leaders also said by the beginning of May they hope to add more data on hospitalizations and vaccine protection. 

“(Vaccinations) greatly reduce people’s risk. It doesn’t mean we won’t get COVID. It just greatly reduces the risk of severe illness,” Tokars said. “We’re looking to reduce (long-term COVID effects) as well, and getting up-to-date with vaccines gives each and every one of us an enormous advantage.” 

During the media briefing, Tokars also emphasized how a county’s community level should influence the precautions its residents should take. 

IDPH’s website explains the CDC measures the COVID-19 community levels based on the new COVID-19 hospital admissions within the past seven days, the total new COVID-19 cases in the population and the seven-day average percentage of occupied staffed in-patient beds by COVID-19 patients. The former two metrics are measured per 100,000 of the population, the website specifies. 

In areas deemed to have a “low community level,” residents should ensure they are up-to-date on vaccinations, just as they should if in areas of medium or high community levels, Tokars said. 

In accordance with CDC recommendations, Tokars said those who are elderly or otherwise immunocompromised and those in contact with them should consider masking when in “medium community level” areas. 

Lastly, she said those in “high community level” areas should wear masks when in indoor public spaces, avoid crowds and continue ensuring they are up-to-date on their COVID vaccinations. 

“It’s not a difference in guidance as much as it is just a (way) to alert the public to start being a little bit more cautious about their safety and protection when it comes to COVID,” Barnes said of the community level classifications. 

While all Illinois counties, with the exception of Champaign, had “low” community levels Saturday, IDPH issued a warning Thursday that case rates are “slowly rising” in much of the state. 

As the Republic-Times previously reported, the classification of COVID-related deaths has traditionally been a topic of contention within Monroe County. 

In late February, Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner said he would no longer be reporting new COVID deaths, as he did not have “any confidence” in their accuracy. 

Melany Arnold, then an IDPH state public information officer, said IDPH classifies a mortality as a COVID death if the disease is listed as an immediate or underlying cause of death, or a significant condition contributing to death, on its corresponding death certificate. 

She added the state frequently reviews these counts to “identify any COVID-19 deaths in which the cause of death listed on the death certificate clearly indicates an alternative cause, such as due to motor vehicle accidents, overdoses or gunshot wounds, and have removed those deaths from our counts.” 

Since Wagner’s last report, the overall COVID death total on IDPH’s website had not reached the last figure he reported. In some cases, the death total even went down. 

When asked about this, Fornoff said while she is not “familiar with the Monroe County numbers specifically,” there are ways this can occur. 

“Occasionally we get duplicate deaths reported to us and we’re not aware of that at the time, and so as part of routine de-duplication of information, the (number) of deaths may reduce,” Fornoff said. “The figures are evaluated on a daily basis for quality. It’s an ongoing process and we get reports from a number of sources (such as) hospitals and death certificates, and we look to determine on an ongoing basis whether or not these are consistent and if they’re not which is the real situation.” 

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