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The power of information during a pandemic

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a press briefing

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a press briefing on Monday. Credit: Office of the Governor

Anecdotally, it’s clear the coronavirus pandemic is hitting some communities more than others.

But so far, we don’t have specific or confirmed information about where all of those pockets are.

In this time of great uncertainty and alarm, it’s necessary for New York State officials to provide more detailed data to show which neighborhoods are being particularly hard-hit, so those residing in those communities can be better informed, and so health care resources can be better deployed.

Nassau County last week started doing just that, producing a map with cases by community. Suffolk, meanwhile, provides per-town data on its website — but that’s not detailed enough. Regularly updating such maps on a local level can be difficult, especially since some of the data initially are gathered by the state. That’s why a statewide effort would be more efficient and comprehensive.

So far, we mostly have the top-line numbers: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state now has more than 15,000 cases, about 3,000 of which are on Long Island, figures that likely will increase exponentially. Nassau’s initial mapping shows higher numbers of cases in Hempstead, Woodmere, Uniondale and East Meadow. Suffolk showed the highest number of cases in the Town of Huntington, but every town — even Shelter Island — has at least one case.

More specific information comes anecdotally, particularly from individual urgent care facilities. In Brooklyn, for instance, two urgent care centers reported that more than 100 people in Borough Park and Williamsburg have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

That’s reflective of particular concerns that in some tight-knit communities, and especially in Orthodox Jewish areas, there are still many instances of neighbors interacting in close quarters.

But this issue goes beyond religious communities. If the data show that a neighborhood has a large number of cases, it could prompt public health officials to be more aggressive in making sure the state order to restrict activities is followed as well as giving residents the evidence they need to understand the severity of the situation. Even more important, if the data indicate a radius around a particular hospital has more cases, it might be possible to direct more resources and staff to that facility. 

There are valid concerns here about protecting individuals’ privacy, and federal medical record laws must be followed. But a by-neighborhood count, or a detailed map, won’t violate those concerns. This is a time when local and state governments must provide as much information as possible to help monitor an ever-changing situation.

Confirmed cases tell only part of the story. Interestingly, Kinsa Health, which sells internet-connected thermometers, is tracking the virus through its own extensive data, which seem to be acting as an early-warning system of sorts and is also available online. That’s how shared data can be helpful.

While the circumstances and the disease were different, the measles outbreak last year illustrated the importance of clear, location-based information. The state should take a similar approach now. 

— The editorial board