NOEL KING, HOST:
As the coronavirus pandemic recedes in this country, more states have started to scale back how often they report what's happening with the virus. Some public health experts are worried about that. Here's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: As it became clear the vaccination campaign was finally beating back the virus, Jolianne Stone says Oklahoma decided it was time to cut back how often the state was updating its COVID dashboard.
JOLIANNE STONE: As our cases were trending downwards and our vaccination rates were increasing, it made more sense for us to go to weekly reporting for certain things like county-level data and hospitalizations and deaths.
STEIN: Oklahoma is one of at least two dozen states that have stopped doing daily tallies of how many people are catching the virus, how many people are ending up in a hospital, how many people are dying. Some stopped reporting anything over the weekend; others cut back to just a few times a week. Florida is just the latest state to go to just once a week like Oklahoma. Stone says this frees up harried public health workers to do other things, like dig deeper into cases and focus on more pressing issues.
STONE: Before, we were getting as little information as possible and trying to report that as fast as we could, and it just wasn't as accurate as we'd like it to be. And this allows our staff to focus on vaccination so that we could pull them to do vaccinations.
STEIN: But this is setting off alarms among some public health experts.
BETH BLAUER: One of the most troubling trends recently has been that states are making the decision to either slow or wind down their reporting efforts.
STEIN: Beth Blauer helps run the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins, which became a leading source of information about the pandemic in the United States.
BLAUER: I think it's absolutely appropriate for us to celebrate the progress that we've made, but we still are very much navigating a pandemic. We haven't gotten to the point where we can stake victory.
STEIN: Blauer and others worry that cutting back on daily reporting could leave lots of places in the dark about new outbreaks until it's too late, especially in the many parts of the country where lots of people still haven't gotten vaccinated.
BLAUER: Without that kind of high fidelity full view of the information, we're going to end up really falling short in our ability to appropriately respond from a public health perspective.
STEIN: But state health officials like Karen Landers defend their decision. Landers is with the Alabama Department of Public Health.
KAREN LANDERS: We've had our finger on the pulse of this pandemic from the beginning in the state of Alabama. So we did not feel that this is going to change that response at all. We are going to continue to monitor very closely and respond expediently to the pandemic, as we have been from the beginning.
STEIN: And others agree it's time to think about monitoring COVID like the flu instead of counting every case. Here's Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
MARCUS PLESCIA: I think it's time for a new approach to how we monitor the pandemic. I mean, things are very, very different now than they were six months ago.
STEIN: But others think it's just too soon, especially as more dangerous variants, like the one first spotted in India, are starting to spread more widely in this country. William Hanage is an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
WILLIAM HANAGE: If you turn on the light, you can't see what's going on. Or if you only turn on the light every now and then, something nasty could be building and you wouldn't know until it was too late. So for goodness sakes, if there's one thing this virus has taught us, it's that it's not one of those movies where you think the villain is vanquished and then they come back and mount one last attack. Even though I think that we've got this virus pretty much licked, that doesn't mean that we can take our eye off the ball just yet.
STEIN: Hanage and others are especially worried about many Southern and Western states, which tend to be the ones cutting back on their reporting even though they're way behind on vaccinating people. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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