Editorial: To build and maintain trust, NM needs transparent reporting of COVID cases
The state Department of Health is wrestling with how to present data on COVID-19 infection without misleading the public about vaccine effectiveness.
We appreciate the dilemma in which health officials find themselves. Their job is to protect public health. One of the best ways to do this is to encourage vaccinations and follow-up boosters. If the way the data is presented gives the wrong impression that vaccines don’t work, then they are right to reconsider what they are doing. But not if it undermines trust.
New Mexico has a good history of vaccinating people. Only 8.6% of adults here are completely unvaccinated, according to the health department’s website, compared to a national rate of 15% reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last December. Nearly 80% of adults in New Mexico have completed a first round of vaccinations.
State health officials won many hearts and minds when the data offered an easy-to-reach conclusion: More unvaccinated people were hospitalized with COVID and/or died than vaccinated people.
But about a month ago, the state changed what it posts on its vaccine dashboard. There was a page showing data for the past four weeks. Originally, these data showed that almost all severe cases were in unvaccinated people.
For example, in the February 7 report, unvaccinated people accounted for 51% of new cases, 74% of hospitalizations and 88.9% of deaths in the previous four weeks.
But as the omicron variant began to spread, vaccinated and boosted individuals began to account for a larger share of severe cases. In the report dated April 18, unvaccinated people accounted for just 39.1% of cases, 55.7% of hospitalizations and 45.5% of deaths in the previous four weeks.
The data didn’t seem to support the truth as conclusively as it had before. The state stopped releasing four-week vaccination reports the following week. In the process, it stopped reporting the number of “breakthrough” cases — vaccinated people who fell ill with COVID-19.
Scientists certainly understand what is going on. If four out of five adults in New Mexico are vaccinated, the pool of people likely to get sick is heavily weighted to the vaccinated. And who is most likely to seek a vaccine and a booster? A person who is immunocompromised, elderly, or at high risk of complications from COVID infection.
So why not use this information to quantify the data?
Instead, Dr. Christine Ross, the state epidemiologist, said the decision was made to pull groundbreaking data from public reports. “There are different adjustments that should be made to this type of analysis for it to continue to accurately display vaccine risk or efficacy,” she said.
So do them. The current approach, deleting data, is not transparent. A critic might say the state is abandoning the data because it doesn’t fit a certain narrative — even amid legitimate concerns, the nuances are lost to the public.
The latest report from the health department showed that the unvaccinated accounted for almost half of the deaths (at 45.5%), even though they make up 20% or less of the population. The DOH fears that people will only see more vaccinated people die and quickly judge vaccines to be ineffective.
New Mexico isn’t alone in rethinking what to share with the public. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health said officials in 25 jurisdictions are working to release data in a way that takes into account issues such as comorbidities, reinfection status, elapsed time since a person’s vaccination, their age and their access to care.
Several studies and clinical trials show that vaccines are effective in preventing serious illness and death. What has become an obsolete reporting method does not easily reinforce this point. We believe the state should present compelling numbers with supporting data that puts the cases in proper context.
With cases in New Mexico up 41% in the past week, it’s important the government provides clear and comprehensive data. Changing the way it reports data, no matter how justified, is problematic. Withholding information may actually fuel anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, contrary to the intent of the Department of Health.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned because it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than that of the editors.