Theatergoers leave the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts in...

Theatergoers leave the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts in December 2021. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

COVID-19, the worst public health disaster in a century, is increasingly viewed as less of a crisis and more like other infectious diseases like the flu.

Health officials are spotlighting the pandemic less. Starting this month, COVID-19 positivity rates, numbers of deaths and other statistics that many Long Islanders once paid close attention to are either disappearing or being pushed deep into the recesses of government websites.

Long Islanders no longer will be able to find out the COVID-19 positivity rates once used by some to assess their risk of infection. National hospitalization numbers, once closely analyzed to measure the severity of the pandemic, are being collected once a week instead of once a day.

The changes, which were made as the federal COVID-19 “public health emergency” expired on May 11, are an acknowledgment that some of those numbers had become less meaningful, experts say.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The end of the federal COVID-19 public health emergency means that the federal and state governments are reporting fewer coronavirus statistics than in the past.
  • Laboratories no longer must report COVID-19 test results, so the state says it cannot calculate positivity rates. Experts say the popularity of home tests made case numbers and percentages unreliable anyway.
  • Much of the focus now will be on hospitalizations — although federal reporting will now be weekly instead of daily — and on using wastewater samples to gauge the spread of the coronavirus.

“A public health emergency cannot exist forever,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore and a pandemic preparedness expert. “Remember, when this was declared, we were worried about hospitals collapsing. The public health emergency was declared at a time when there were no vaccines, no testing, no antivirals, no knowledge of this virus. The context has changed significantly.”

But some are concerned that although COVID-19 is less deadly, its diminishing prominence obscures how it remains a major public health threat that has killed tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of Long Islanders so far this year.

“Now that it’s been decided the state of emergency has ended, it doesn’t mean the pandemic has ended,” said Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY School of Public Health in Manhattan.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health reduced data collection and reporting after the emergency declaration expired.

“A public health emergency cannot exist forever,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja,...

“A public health emergency cannot exist forever,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a pandemic preparedness expert. Credit: Larry Canner

New York is evaluating whether to eliminate or modify even more data reporting.

For now, state and county case, death and hospitalization numbers still are updated daily, except weekends.

CDC officials recently said hospitalization numbers now will be its primary way to track COVID-19, but at the same time said the agency would compile those statistics less often. The CDC also is focusing on death-certificate numbers that sometimes take weeks to tabulate, rather than on the most recent fatalities.

Cuomo's data filled briefings

In the spring of 2020, when New York was one of the world’s COVID-19 epicenters and 700 to 800 people were dying from the disease statewide on some days, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gained international attention for his daily, data-filled, televised coronavirus briefings.

Viewers were transfixed by PowerPoint slides that displayed the number of deaths, hospitalizations, patients in intensive care and on ventilators, and new infections. With schools and many businesses closed, COVID-19 permeated most New Yorkers’ lives.

Gov. Kathy Hochul did not have regular televised briefings, but her office sent out weekday emails with the latest COVID-19 data. Those updates ended with the end of the health emergency.

Today, those statistics aren’t as necessary to surveil the pandemic, and many Americans no longer care about them, Adalja said.

“It’s not as if people are looking at those case counts every day,” he said.

Adalja said scaling back data collection “makes sense.”

When the federal emergency ended, so did the government’s power to compel the reporting of some statistics. One key change: Laboratories are no longer required to report COVID-19 test results.

That makes it impossible to accurately calculate the percentage of New Yorkers who test positive in lab tests, so reporting of positivity rates will be discontinued, state health department spokeswoman Cadence Acquaviva said in an email.

The CDC still will calculate positivity rates, but they will be based on results from about 450 labs nationwide and will be released only weekly, the agency announced.

In New York, cases per 100,000 residents will be reported, Acquaviva said. But, she said, “the Department is carefully assessing changes to COVID-19 data collection and reporting and will make a determination regarding what data will be maintained as-is, what will be modified, and what data will no longer be required.”

COVID-19 test result numbers never have been complete, Adalja said. “Now they’re off even more because a lot of people are using home tests” that are never reported to government authorities, he said.

New York’s positivity rates have been based exclusively on PCR test results for more than a year.

'Most people aren't testing anymore'

Fewer people are taking any type of COVID-19 test, said Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University.

“Most people aren't testing anymore,” he said. “They don't want to know, or they just don't care, or they're asymptomatic, or mildly symptomatic, and they don't feel the need to go out and get tested. So some of the data is as a whole becoming so unreliable that you can't use it.”

Testing likely will become even less common because the expiration of the health emergency meant that insurance companies no longer are required to pay for it, said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in Manhattan.

Testing likely will become even less common because  insurance companies...

Testing likely will become even less common because  insurance companies no longer are required to pay for it, said Wafaa El-Sadr, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology and medicine. Credit: Columbia University/Eileen Barroso

The CDC and state will continue monitoring COVID-19 levels in sewage plant samples that contain human waste, perhaps the best way to detect the spread of the virus, she said. 

New York in January announced it would significantly increase the number of wastewater sampling sites, which currently number 182, health department spokesman Cort Ruddy said Thursday.

But Nash said wastewater sampling should be more frequent, and wastewater data should regularly be reported to the public.

Focus on hospitalizations

The CDC and state said much of their focus would now be on COVID-19 hospitalizations, which currently are a fraction of what they were during major surges.

El-Sadr said it’s logical to concentrate “less on numbers of infections, numbers of positive tests, and more on the consequences of COVID-19, meaning hospitalizations and deaths.”

Yet that data collection is being reduced or is less frequent.

Even before the health emergency ended, only seven states were publishing death and case information more than once a week, making it difficult to track the pandemic, four experts with the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center wrote in an April 30 New York Times opinion piece. New York, which Clouston said has had among the nation's most complete COVID-19 data, was one of them.

Adalja compared the new approach to COVID-19 surveillance with how diseases like the flu are monitored.

“We don't have daily flu counts,” he said. “We keep track of what's going on with flu by looking at severe disease, looking at deaths, looking at other metrics.”

“Now that it’s been decided the state of emergency has...

“Now that it’s been decided the state of emergency has ended, it doesn’t mean the pandemic has ended,” said Denis Nash, a CUNY professor of epidemiology. Credit: Barbara Aaron

Nash agreed with Adalja that some COVID-19 reporting is no longer necessary. But, he said, COVID-19 remains much more lethal than the flu and will be for the foreseeable future.

About 245,000 Americans died of COVID-19-related causes in 2022, according to CDC estimates, and more than 36,500 have died in 2023. The CDC’s flu-death estimate from October through May 13: at least 19,000.

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