The Journal Gazette
 
 
Sunday, September 06, 2020 1:00 am

Figures illustrate virus's progress

But dashboards can overwhelm viewers

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

The Year of the Dashboard. 

That's what Brian Dixon calls 2020, and the description is accurate. 

Online clearinghouses for information on COVID-19 have popped up seemingly everywhere this year as more data is gathered about the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. States, counties and some colleges and research agencies including the Regenstrief Institute – where Dixon is director of public health informatics – offer click-through access to thousands of statistics and metrics that show the effect of the disease on communities. 

The growth of dashboards has coincided with continued gains in knowledge about COVID-19 and the global pandemic that has left tens of thousands infected and more than 3,100 dead in Indiana. Dashboards are one-stop shops for data ranging from the number of new infections per day and intensive care unit beds available to statistics on the number of young people killed by the virus. 

But they also are warehouses of facts, figures and statistics that could quickly become overwhelming. 

“I can definitely see where consumers are overwhelmed by the data,” said Dixon, an associate professor at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI. He uses “computer and information science approaches to study, design, and improve data and information systems that support the practice of epidemiology in public health departments,” according to the university's website. 

“Over time, there's a lot more metrics to look at,” Dixon said in an interview. 

To counter the crush of information offered on dashboards, doctors and public health experts in Allen County and at the Indiana State Department of Health are working to provide data in a different way. By carving data into smaller nuggets, officials say they hope the public and organizations such as schools can use the information to make decisions on whether to stay open or take more precautions. 

The state last week unveiled a new, color-coded map designed to show a snapshot of how COVID-19 is affecting each county. The map is updated daily at coronavirus.in.gov and details weekly cases per 100,000 residents and whether more people in a county are testing positive for the disease. 

The Allen County Department of Health also developed color-coded guidelines using the number of new cases per day and seven-day averages of metrics including positivity rates and new hospital admissions. Those will be posted to the department's website some time this week, a spokeswoman said.  

Blue, yellow, orange and red are used on the state's map to indicate whether spread of COVID-19 is low or high. Each color triggers recommendations – blue is the least restrictive – for schools such as limiting or canceling activities, though decisions are left to school districts. 

As of Saturday, Allen County was yellow, indicating moderate spread of the disease. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb acknowledged in a news conference the sometimes daunting amount of information on the state's dashboard, but said it presents a full picture of the pandemic in Indiana. 

“We don't want folks drowning in a sea of data, but we also know that different folks consume data differently,” he said. “We're going to constantly err on more rather than less.”

Researchers such as Dixon and doctors argue understanding the spread of the virus and its potential impact on the community requires considering numerous factors. But they key is considering the right ones. 

One-day counts of new cases or deaths attributed to COVID-19 are less helpful than trends in positivity rates, for example. 

Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter said it's difficult to find any single statistic or measure that's best. Seven-day averages of new COVID-19 cases can help show how fast the disease is spreading, however, and that pace could determine what actions need to be taken to slow the pace. 

Sutter compared rising seven-day averages to a speedometer on a car. 

“If you're going 120 mph, you're probably going to have to do something more aggressive to stay safe,” he said. 

In Allen County, seven-day averages have hovered around 40 to 50 cases, state data shows. The seven-day positivity rate as of Saturday was 10.2% – higher than the state rate of 7.5%

Doctors have said they would like to see a rate of about 5%.

“Once the positivity starts to go up, you start to worry about your speedometer,” Sutter said. “My perception is many people feel like this is completely under control and we're doing great, and that's not my perspective.”

Dr. Vishal Bhatia, Lutheran Health Network's regional chief medical officer, joined hundreds of doctors, emergency workers, educators and others at Memorial Coliseum in early March – before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in northeast Indiana. Those gathered discussed plans to combat the virus, and Bhatia describes the months since as “learning, on steroids.”

Like other experts, he said trends can provide information on the prevalence of the disease. But, Bhatia cautioned, that is tough to determine because not everyone is being tested. 

“It's really hard to look at one data point and make an accurate decision,” he said. 

Dr. Jeffrey Boord, Parkview chief quality and safety officer, also attended the March meeting and said last week “things have changed dramatically since that time.”

Residents have better access to testing – at the beginning of the pandemic, only the sickest patients were tested – and dozens of new data points are being plotted each day. Hospitals and public health agencies also are working closely to share information. 

“It's one of the silver linings of this pandemic,” Boord said. 

mleblanc@jg.net 

At a glance

Dashboards created by government agencies, colleges and public health organizations provide data on COVID-19. Below are some that highlight aspects of the pandemic around the world, in Indiana and in Allen County.

• Regenstrief Institute: regenstrief.org/covid-dashboard/

• Indiana State Department of Health: coronavirus.in.gov

• Allen County Department of Health: allencountyhealth.com/get-informed/covid-19/

• Purdue University Fort Wayne: pfw.edu/microsites/pfw-prepared/

• Harvard Global Health Institute: globalhealth.harvard.edu/domains/pandemics/

• Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center: coronavirus.jhu.edu


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