The U.S. may have reached another milestone in the pandemic as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it will stop reporting daily COVID-19 cases and deaths in favor of weekly surveillance, similar to the flu.
The agency touted the move as a change that will smooth out COVID-19 reporting work across the nation and free up resources. The switch will be official Oct. 20.
Experts say the shift to weekly reporting is largely a byproduct of decades of underfunding public health systems, and worry pulling resources away from COVID-19 surveillance could delay pandemic efforts and send the wrong message to the public.
“It could definitely be interpreted as we’re changing the way we interact with this pandemic,” said Jodie Guest, professor and vice chair of the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “But this is more about workforce issues and the burden on states to routinely update data: They’re underfunded and understaffed.”
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The CDC did not immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said in a Friday briefing that many states had already made the informal shift to weekly surveillance, which led to inconsistent information.
“What I think CDC is doing is moving to a weekly cadence that reflects where states are across the country,” he said. “That said, the COVID team at the White House, the work of the CDC on looking at data and analysis – that continues at seven days a week where we have daily data available.”
But while daily data on coronavirus cases has grown increasingly unreliable as at-home testing became widely available, health experts say data on deaths continues to be a useful tool.
Unfortunately, the robust surveillance systems created at the beginning of the pandemic can’t continue to perform without funding from Congress, experts say.
It’s a pattern that has plagued public health systems for decades, said Dr. Keri Althoff, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“This idea that we can massively fund public health in times of emergency and then massively cut … it creates a feast or famine situation that doesn’t embody what we need to grow sustainable infrastructure,” she said.
Hospitalization surveillance should still be publicly available on a daily basis as hospitals are in charge of sharing that information. But some health experts worry the shift to weekly deaths could impede a rapid national response to deadly surges or a new variant.
“It means that when the data comes out every single week, we really need to be looking at it,” said Guest, who argues less frequent data means officials need to pay closer attention to trends that could sound the alarm. “Especially, going into the winter months.”
Health experts also hope Americans continue to take precautions against COVID-19 even though its surveillance system shifts to one that mirrors how the flu is tracked.
Cases for both COVID and the flu are expected to rise in the fall and winter months, Althoff said, but the coronavirus is still associated with up to 400 deaths per day – more than any other respiratory infection in the U.S.
“We need to be sure that we don’t over interpret this shift in how we’re going to monitor COVID to suggest that it’s the same thing as the flu,” she said. “It’s clearly not.”
COVID-19 bivalent boosters and flu vaccines are now available, and officials are urging Americans to get them before the holidays – particularly people who may be at highest risk for developing severe disease.
A new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed vaccines and boosters were associated with more than 650,000 fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations and over 300,000 fewer deaths among Medicare recipients in 2021.
An analysis by the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit supporting health research, found a successful booster campaign this winter could prevent about 90,000 deaths by the end of March 2023 if at least 80% of eligible Americans got boosted.
“The evidence on this is overwhelming,” Jha said. “The single biggest thing people can be doing to protect themselves and their families is getting vaccinated.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID cases, deaths: CDC switches reporting from daily to weekly