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COVID-19 data lag time could hide spikes in cases as Ohio reopens

Wood County COVID-19 data

As the state begins rolling back COVID-19 restrictions, Ohioans are keeping their eyes on the curve they’ve been working to flatten since March.

The potential for cases to spike as restaurants, bars and personal care services reopen starting May 15 is a worry for many. In Germany, the reopening of businesses is accompanied by an “emergency brake” mechanism to halt any increases in infections.

In Ohio, a phased-in reopening of businesses is meant to prevent a major spike in cases, Wood County Health Department Communications Manager Pat Snyder said. 

“We’re relying on the Ohio Department of Health to be the expert on this” and will look to the state level for guidance should they see hotspots appearing in Wood County, she said.

As a 21st-century pandemic, COVID-19 comes with a surge of data. Unlike previous disease outbreaks, people are updated daily with new numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

"This pandemic is unprecedented, and the amount of data sharing is unprecedented," Canadian epidemiology professor David Buckeridge said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. "I've never seen this much activity of people making data so openly available."

While the process of reporting data to the public is one way states like Ohio have kept the curve flat, challenges prevent the preliminary data from being as accurate in real time as many health professionals would like. Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton emphasized the issue of lag time in reporting during the April 28 press conference. 

As a result of the virus’ long incubation period, the data announced on a daily basis is often two to three weeks behind the confirmed case count for that day, Acton explained. Beyond this lag, there is also discrepancy between the case count based on testing and the actual number of Ohioans who might have the virus but aren’t tested for it.

“You might see cases early on if they’re diagnosed with testing, and then you would see hospitalizations lag that by another almost two weeks. And deaths lag about four weeks behind that,” Acton said.

As Responsible RestartOhio begins this week, Acton said any possible spikes in the curve would not start to show in the reported data until three, six and eight weeks out.

In Wood County, the difference between the regularly updated data for confirmed cases and the data originally reported for a specific date on the WCHD’s social media follows Acton’s point. 

The data is labeled as preliminary because it is constantly “subject to change as more information is reported to ODH” and is “likely under-reported to ODH because of the delay between initial contact with a health care provider, testing, and diagnosis,” according to the ODH COVID-19 Dashboard.

“There’s definitely more cases today than we know about,” Snyder said. 

Ohio restaurants and bars can begin opening up outdoor dining spaces to patrons May 15 and indoor spaces May 21. Personal care services such as salons, tanning facilities, spas, tattoo parlors and more may reopen May 15. All reopenings are dependent on compliance with health and safety guidelines determined by ODH and Gov. Mike DeWine.

WCHD Community Outreach Coordinator Alex Aspacher warned that reopening does not mean the pandemic is over and the health guidance the department has been giving the past few months still applies.

“A return to business is not a return to normal,” he said.

To ensure businesses have the resources they need to reopen safely, WCHD has begun creating signage to notify customers of occupancy restrictions and mask-wearing policies. 

For Wood County business owners and consumers with questions about how to keep their employees and patrons safe, visit the WCHD COVID-19 resources page. Email WCHD at healthdept@co.wood.oh.us to express feedback or concerns about additional business resources.

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