Last week Wednesday (September 28, 2022), the Ministry of Health & Wellness (MOHW) announced that it would be discontinuing its daily Covid-19 updates:
The release was a brief one and didn’t give any reasons for the discontinuation, simply saying that it would take effect on Saturday, October 1, 2022, and that “[t]he updated numbers will instead be published in the Ministry’s Surveillance Bulletin, published weekly on the Ministry’s website at moh.gov.jm.”
Although the MOHW website hasn’t posted any more of the daily updates since the announcement on Wednesday, the Ministry’s Twitter account did post one on Saturday, which is presumably the last of the long series of daily updates.
I do want to comment more at another time about the fact that for most of the past two and a half years, the MOHW has been providing daily Covid-19 updates in one format or another and the value that this has had, despite gaps in or problems with the updates. Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, public holidays, weekends…the update was posted daily, almost without fail. Someone or some team needs to be acknowledged for that. And I also want to say more about other aspects of the updates themselves.
But in this post I want to raise some concerns that I have about the discontinuation of the daily updates or Clinical Management Summaries, as they are officially called, and the proposed method for sharing the Covid-19 numbers in the future.
The MOHW release said that the Covid numbers will be published in the MOHW Surveillance Bulletin, which is published weekly on the MOHW website, at the bottom right hand corner.
The Weekly Epidemiology Bulletin is published by the National Epidemiology Unit of the MOHW and is a useful record of information for each epidemiological week of the year. It provides information about Class One Notifiable Events (e.g. accidental poisonings, maternal deaths, cases of tuberculosis, tetanus & zika), gives an influenza report and has a report on dengue, among other things.
One concern that I have is regarding how much of the information that is currently provided in the daily Covid-19 updates will be provided in the weekly bulletin. The bulletin already provides a year-to-date total of confirmed cases, which is given for both the current year and the previous year, as seen on the page below:
But will more information than that be provided, as with the page dedicated to dengue in the Bulletin?
The current daily Covid summaries provide quite detailed breakdowns – confirmed cases, female and male numbers, age range, number and types of tests, positivity rate, parish distribution, hospitalization data, information about deaths and recoveries. How much of that will be included in the weekly bulletins?
The answer to all of that will be seen when the first of the weekly bulletins containing the Covid update is published.
Another concern I have is about the timeliness of the reporting in the future. The MOHW press release says the Surveillance Bulletin is posted on the MOHW website weekly, which may give the impression that each week the Bulletin for the previous week is published. This isn’t so. The Bulletin is produced for each Epidemiological Week of the year but it takes a while for the Bulletin to be produced and posted on the MOHW website.
So, for example, the most recent Bulletin currently posted on the website is for Epidemiological Week 36, which is the week ending September 10, 2022. It was posted on the website on September 26, 2022, sixteen days after the ending of that week.
And this is the pattern, as the chart below shows. There is a time lag of about 2 to 3 weeks between the ending of the Epidemiological Week and the date on which the Bulletin for that week is published on the MOHW website.
You can see it here again for an earlier period in the year:
If this continues to be the pattern, it means that by the time the Covid-19 updates are published on the MOHW website, the information in them will already be 2 to 3 weeks old. And whereas this isn’t a problem from a record-keeping perspective, it is a problem for anyone who is trying to assess what the current trends are in the pandemic…which has not yet ended, despite what many would want to believe.
We are in a period when we have been told it is our personal responsibility to assess our individual risk and to follow the protective protocols based on our assessments…as individuals, families, institutions, businesses. Whether we wear a mask at all or in particular spaces. Whether we avoid crowded spaces indoors or outdoors or at all. Whether having a meal at a restaurant is a reasonable risk to take. Or going to a particular government office or waiting room at a business place. Or whether it is advisable to attend an in-person event/meeting or to select a virtual option, if one is provided, or not to attend, if a virtual option isn’t available. Etc. Risks which may be reasonable when there are low numbers may not be as reasonable when there is an upward trend in numbers.
To have less information or information which is already 2 or 3 weeks old by the time you see it reduces your ability to make real time assessments of the risks. The situation would already be 2 or 3 weeks further on, by the time an increase in cases or an increase in hospitalizations or an increase in deaths is seen in the published bulletin.
I was not surprised by the MOHW’s announced decision to end daily Covid reports. It is in keeping with the trend in many countries. In our region, Barbados also announced on Wednesday that it would be ending its daily Covid updates, as of September 30, 2022. In fact, I wonder if this issue came up for discussion at the recently held Annual General Meeting of the Regional Health Communication Network.
It would be good to hear from the Ministry its reasons for this decision and what it sees as the purpose of the Covid-19 updates going forward. I would also be interested in hearing if a weekly update along the lines of the current weekly monkeypox updates isn’t a viable option.
When dealing with public health issues, as a general principle, greater access to information is better than less access. When dealing with most public issues, in fact.