Readers may have noticed the daily newly reported cases, deaths and tests dropped dramatically during the December holiday weekends. This drop reveals more about how COVID-19 data is reported than actual transmission behaviors over those dates.
Why is that?
During holidays, two important kinds of organizations tend to close that have a significant impact on COVID-19 data reporting:
- State and local health authorities – Public health departments at the state and local levels observe federal holidays and weekends. A large part of accurate data reporting needs human work, so while the offices are closed, reporting halts and is delayed until the staff return. Some organizations have sufficient automation resources to continue some reporting, however, this is typically at a lower level than during normal business days. This will result in a temporary drop, followed by a spike of reporting.
- Testing sites – Many testing sites close over holidays. This means fewer tests are administered. With lower testing, fewer cases are identified. This will likely result in a more permanent “dip” in case counts during the holiday period.
What does this mean for understanding recent COVID-19 data trends?
Readers should interpret the very low counts for cases and deaths with caution. Analysts and health professionals note there is very little evidence that the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have truly declined significantly over the past two weeks.
One way readers can “gut check” unusually low numbers for cases and deaths is to look at hospitalizations. Hospitals do not close for holidays and usually maintain more consistent reporting over holidays and weekends. Trends in hospitalizations can provide more timely context for understanding transmission and severity of the virus when reporting is suppressed.
What can we expect in the next couple of weeks?
Individuals keeping an eye on the COVID-19 crisis can expect to see a few things in the next couple of weeks:
- Over the next 5-10 days – Spikes of newly reported cases are likely. Over the next 1 to 2 business weeks, health departments will begin working to report the backlog of data that had come through over the holidays. Contact tracing of cases that were identified over the holiday may reveal additional cases. Over time, the majority of these newly reported cases will be attributed to their date of actual occurrence in the trend lines.
- Within the next 2 weeks – Based on epidemiological models, analysts expect to see a wave of cases beginning approximately Jan. 7 and extending potentially past Jan. 20. This wave is an expected outcome of gatherings associated with the holidays.