COVID-19 April 13, 1990

We Need Data

by Barry P Chaiken, MD

As the SAR-CoV-2 virus follows its destiny around the world working to upend all that we know as normal, public health officials, scientists, politicians, journalists, and citizens realize the only way they can effectively battle the virus is through the use of data. Gut feelings and “I think” or “I believe” no longer carry weight. The cost of making the wrong decision is just too great. Just too dangerous. We learned this lesson in January and February where the data told us the virus had already arrived at our shores and was spreading quickly, except we ignored that data.

When television news anchors and print journalists ask the experts every day what the data shows, it is clear data is now the focus for everyone. How many new cases do we have? How many ventilators? Is the curve flattening? What’s the slope? Are we seeing a decrease in deaths? Governor Cuomo’s daily briefing always includes charts and graphs showing the latest data, which he uses to give citizens a snapshot of the pandemic and its impact on New York State.

Americans are receiving a crash course on data, its importance, and how to visualize it. The New York Times produces visualizations of the pandemic leveraging data collected internally by its own researchers and externally by research institutions such as Johns Hopkins, the primary source of worldwide data on COVID-19 case and death rates. These online visualizations convert multiple data sources into easy to understand images that tell the story of the pandemic. They allow the average person to interpret vast amounts of data by leveraging the expertise of researchers who understand the epidemiology of pandemics and data scientists who know how to tell a story with data.

States, health departments, and hospitals are using data sources such as supply chain software, laboratory systems, and electronic medical records to create visualizations that inform their citizens, workers, and clinical staff on the current state of the pandemic, allowing them to respond intelligently. This visual information guides their daily work.

Although many changes in our way of life will occur post pandemic, the regular use of data by decision makers will hopefully be one that helps prevent a crisis of this magnitude from occurring again.

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