Experts Worry That CDC Covid-19 Maps, Measures May Be Misleading

At first glance, the maps on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Covid-19 Integrated County View web page look great. As of April 7, most of the U.S. was in the green, with green representing “low Covid-19 Community Levels in US by County.” It almost makes it seem like people don’t have to worry about the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) any more. After all, when you are told that the risk of anything is low whether it’s getting a disease, being attacked by lemurs at a restaurant, or falling face first into some quiche, you tend to not take precautions.

However, some health experts have expressed concerns that such maps and measures may be misleading. For example, Eric Topol, MD, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, tweeted the following:

As you can see, Topol called a CDC tweet and the accompanying “County-level Covid-19 Community Levels” map “misleading.” He added that it “will give BA.2 more chance to spread.” This is presumably because Americans may take it as false reassurance that Covid-19 is no longer a threat and thus become too lax about Covid-19 precautions. In other words, it could lead to premature relaxation. Premature relaxation of Covid-19 precautions? Gee, when has that ever happened before?

Both Jonathan S. Reiner, MD, a Professor of Medicine at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences and Jason L. Salemi, PhD, an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, pointed out the differences between the green-appearing Covid-19 Community Levels map and the multi-colored CDC Covid-19 Community Transmission maps:

The Community Levels U.S. map may look like a giant green light whereas the Community Transmission one looks more like the background of a “Where’s Waldo” picture. Speaking of “Where’s Waldo,” Reiner pointed out that the Community Transmission maps “are not so easy to find on the CDC website.” Contrast that with the fact that the CDC tweeted out the Community Levels map without providing the Community Transmission maps alongside. Moreover, the Community Levels web site is what come up first on Google searches.

Focusing on the Community Levels map would be like using a weather map from March to determine what to wear today. Life coaches frequently say, “don’t live in the past,” so why should that be done with Covid-19. A county’s Covid-19 level qualifies as “low” when there has been less than 200 cases per 100,000 people, the number of new Covid-19 admissions per 100,000 people has been less than 10, and the percentage of staffed inpatient beds in use by Covid-19 patients is less than 10% over the previous 7 days. But Covid-19 isn’t like Bieber Fever. You don’t get diagnosed as soon as you get infected. It can take up to two weeks before you notice symptoms if you even develop symptoms. It can take even longer to get hospitalized. Therefore, the Community Levels map represents transmission that occurred one to four weeks ago. It won’t help you determine when to institute precautions such as face mask wearing to prevent an upcoming Covid-19 upswing.

When it comes to Covid-19 precautions, the Community Transmission maps offer much more relevant info. On these maps, a county is considered low when the number of new cases per 100,000 persons is less than 10 and the percentage of positive Nucleic Acid Amplification (NAAT) tests is less than 5% over the past 7 days. The level moves up to moderate if the first measure goes to the 10 to 49.99 range or the second measure moves to the 5% to 7.99% range. Substantial means that either the first measure is now in the 50 to 99.99 range or the second is in the 8% to 9.99%. When the first measure has reached 100 or the second has reached 10%, transmission levels qualify as high.

Now even these CDC transmission measures don’t give you a fully up-to-date and accurate picture. Many people may never get tested and even if they do, they may take time to get tested and may not even report the results. In fact, without Covid-19 tests being free and readily available to all, there can be substantial differences between who gets tested and who doesn’t. It can be yet another difference between the haves and have nots in this country. So Community Transmission maps alone may allow you to be a little more proactive but enough so.

Sure, some politicians and businesses may want things to appear as “normal” as possible as soon as possible. The illusion of complete normality could prompt people to spend more and re-elect current politicians for office. Plus, Covid-19 precautions require some up front spending and investment. All of this could make people want to green and bear it and reluctant to leave the green, so speak. Remember back in 2020 when some politicians and business leaders kept downplaying the pandemic, claiming that the pandemic was “rounding the corner” and other overly optimistic scenarios? Hmm, what’s happened since then?

The rush to return to normal, whatever “normal” means, and the repeated premature relaxation of Covid-19 precautions has continued to be remarkably short-sighted. The SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t really care what politicians and business leaders say. Failing to maintain proper Covid-19 precautions such as face mask use, social distancing, and Covid-19 vaccination could further extend the pandemic and increase the negative impact of the SARS-CoV-2. This is especially true with the more contagious BA.2 Omicron subvariant spreading. The CDC Covid-19 Community Levels map may have you seeing green as in low risk, go, go, go, and perhaps even mo’ money. But that could end up being an off-color conclusion.

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