Guest columnist Mindy Domb: Governor needs to reverse course on COVID data collection

  • Mindy Domb Gazette file photo

Friday, August 27, 2021

Have you ever played hide and seek with a toddler who “hides” by covering their eyes? I have. I’ve explained that even though they don’t see me, it doesn’t mean I’m not there. Lack of visibility didn’t make either of us disappear.

That’s the feeling I had last week in reaction to the Baker administration’s misguided decisions to stop collecting and reporting specific COVID-19 data. The elimination of hospitalization data by race, ethnicity and age blurs the impact of the virus on communities of color and limits knowledge of serious COVID illness in kids.

The lack of information compromises our efforts to develop data-driven interventions rooted in equity and hinders the development of targeted public health policies. The absence of data does not translate to an absence of impact.

Like many, I was also surprised and confused by media reports that the Baker administration will not monitor or report school-based COVID outbreaks in the 2021-22 school year. This is unsettling for parents, guardians and communities as we prepare for the resumption of in-person learning. If implemented, this decision will skew our knowledge of what’s happening in schools and may threaten our capacity to ensure safe in-person learning.

To date, the Baker administration has neither corrected, confirmed, denied or responded to the reports.

These decisions of the Baker administration to cover its eyes — and, by extension, ours — as we experience growing numbers of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across the state, undermine our efforts to understand the current pandemic and compromise our ability to create data-driven policies to respond to it. This current increase is primarily attributed to the highly contagious and dangerous delta variant. This series of decisions is a treacherous one-two punch, creating a significant vacuum in assessing delta’s impact in the commonwealth.

Epidemiologists are public health’s private detectives and can unravel the mystery of disease. They track the path of a virus and log whom it infects, sickens and kills. This process of surveillance and the resulting information leads to understanding viral behavior. That knowledge is the basis of effective policy. It can also build community awareness, promote prevention, reinforce vaccination practices, and mobilize for action. Later, it can be used to evaluate our response.

It is clear that despite reasonable vaccination rates in some communities in Massachusetts, the presence of the delta variant requires our continued vigilance, inquiry and understanding. We cannot simply stop collecting and sharing crucial data on this virus while it is in our communities and rapidly spreading.

We have an obligation to provide our communities, school districts and parents/guardians with the information they deserve and need to know. Given the vulnerability of the K-12 population, data collection is even more critical since the administration decided to dismiss the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the U.S. Department of Education that students, teachers, staff and visitors wear masks while indoors.

If municipalities are required to make decisions about mask-wearing indoors on their own, as the Baker administration has suggested, we must provide the resources they need to help inform these decisions.

When I was doing AIDS education earlier in my professional career, I opened the conversation on the importance of data and surveillance with the question: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear its fall, does it make a sound? In the world of public health, data collection and reporting is the way we amplify the sound of falling trees. It is one way we “hear” the impact of the crisis.

In the AIDS epidemic, it was also useful in countering our country’s sluggish response. It built awareness about the shared risk. Data coupled with the experience of our communities and residents can compel individual, collective and governmental action.

Much of the data we have had thus far to review has resulted from action by the Legislature and advocacy organizations. Gov. Baker needs to reverse these most recent decisions. Deciding to stop or pause the collection and sharing of data at this critical juncture undermines our efforts to respond equitably and effectively to the pandemic, muffles our calls for individual prevention and vaccination, forfeits knowledge we could have, and increases anxiety and stress among our residents.

Failing to collect and share data doesn’t make the pandemic or its impact disappear. It only disadvantages our efforts to combat it.

Mindy Domb, state representative for the 3rd Hampshire District, has represented the communities of Amherst, Pelham and the first precinct in Granby in the Massachusetts House of Representatives since 2019.