Not everything that can be measured is worth quantifying, and not everything worth quantifying can be measured. And in the middle of a pandemic that’s claimed tens of thousands of lives, there’s a considerable amount of data that currently falls into the latter category.
Demographic characteristics such as population density, racial/ethnic composition, income and age (which can be viewed with COVID-19 statistics on Social Explorer), may provide a roadmap for determining where the coronavirus may be emerging in the United States and where it may be receding. Other data, however, will have to be developed for the pandemic to be successfully curbed over the long term.
COVID-19 Data Across the United States. Click here to explore further.
Data that reveal broad trends are useful, of course – confirmed cases, hospitalizations, intensive care unit bed utilization, ventilator shortages, and deaths all provide rough outlines of the size of the problem. Those figures, however, are only broad trends that don’t fully define the full scope of the pandemic’s toll.
Unfortunately, much of the scientific and public health data that would be extremely useful can’t be quantified yet and may never be available. Researchers, for example, may find themselves trying to hit moving targets when it comes to calculating a transmission rate (known as the R0, or average number of people who are infected by carriers of the virus); determining a precise latency period for people to move from uninfected to asymptomatic to infected with symptoms; or accurately calculate the percentage of the population that’s immune from the virus (assuming immunity exists).
From a public health standpoint, it’s difficult to calculate the lethality of the virus, absent a massive testing program. Because of the lack of testing, there’s no doubt that thousands of people have died around the planet from unrecorded complications of the virus since the outbreak began late last year in China. But even when invasive nasal swab tests are available, studies have shown they provide false negative results about 30 percent of the time. Such false negatives also plague immunologists working to develop an antibody-response test that would determine if a person’s immune system has been exposed to the coronavirus.
From a political point of view, data also aren’t available that would indicate infected people’s exposure to other people and pinpoint routes of infection. Typically, such data in the form of “contact tracing” could be used to identify and isolate potential carriers in a pandemic. Several states and cities have begun labor-intensive efforts to trace carriers, but decades of disinvestment in public health make it an uphill battle. And while such data may be available via individual cell phones, credit cards, and facial recognition surveillance, it’s far from clear that Americans would be willing to surrender even more privacy to a government that a clear majority believes has run roughshod over individual freedoms – even in the face of a deadly pandemic.
At this early stage, data needed to resolve the crisis aren’t available, and it’s important to recognize that some data may never be available. The challenge for researchers, public health officials, and political leaders will be to synthesize existing, high-quality data (such as demographic and hospital admissions figures) with emerging data to develop medical, economic, and political solutions to a crisis that’s playing out quite differently in places across the United States.