The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has begun giving the public more detailed data about the coronavirus pandemic and says it will provide more information soon, including daily negative test counts and more fine-grained information on where COVID-19 cases have occurred.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, says the state is trying to balance individuals’ privacy rights with the public’s need for information. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Dr. Nirav Shah, the Maine CDC’s director, said the agency will soon begin posting daily negative COVID-19 test counts, allowing the calculation of the positive test rate. Maine is the only state in the country that has not been able to provide this key metric, the Press Herald reported last week. Shah also said the state will “in the coming days” provide information on new and active cases “on a more granular level.”

“Perhaps it will be at the town level, perhaps something even lower than that,” Shah said at Wednesday’s briefing. “We are looking for ways we can do that so that it balances the public’s need to know what is going on with the right of privacy that individuals have.”

The Press Herald reported April 27 that Maine was the only state in New England not providing town-level pandemic information, instead presenting the information only at the county level. The newspaper filed a public records request for this information early Wednesday morning.

Shah’s announcement followed the introduction on the agency’s website of detailed graphs on the key metrics the state is tracking as it decides whether to lift or restore various lockdown measures designed to slow the spread of the disease, which has no cure or vaccine yet. These included graphs of daily data and seven-day trend lines of statewide visits to doctor’s offices by people with influenza-like illnesses and COVID-19-like symptoms, two of the metrics Gov. Janet Mills has said her administration will use in evaluating the phased reopening that began May 1.

Jeremy Youde, who studies the intersection of government and public health at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said the new data graphs and promised daily case data would increase public confidence in whatever reopening decisions are made by state government.

“The more this kind of data is available, the more you can make wise decisions, while also instilling a degree of public confidence in how those decisions are being made,” Youde said. “When you look worldwide, in places where we have a high degree of transparency around the data, that’s where people feel the most confident in the decisions that are being made.”

Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said a switch from weekly to daily negative testing reports would help the Maine CDC stay on top of the pandemic. Maine, alone in the United States, has not been able to calculate this information, even for internal purposes, since March, with officials saying the number of outside labs reporting test data made it too difficult.

“Having daily data really helps better interpret trends and also provides data in a more timely fashion to potentially alert us to worrisome changes,” Nuzzo said, adding that it allows epidemiologists to calculate the daily positivity rate of tests performed. “This can be an early indicator that we may be headed in the wrong direction and indicates there may be something we can do to address it before it becomes a really big problem again.”

On Wednesday, Shah said officials hope to release the daily testing data “in the near future,” but that they “don’t want to rush and put out numbers only to have to correct them later.”

Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said the changes reflect the agency’s “ongoing efforts to add information and enhance the value of data presented on the web page in ways that help the public understand and appropriately respond to the COVID-19 situation in Maine.”

The agency currently releases the total number of negative tests on state residents only once a week, meaning the agency can also determine a critical metric – the so-called “positivity rate” – only weekly. In epidemiology, that rate is often used to track the spread of deadly diseases in circumstances where most people can’t get tested and gives an indication of whether a testing regime is casting a wide enough net. If the positivity rate fails to shrink as testing expands, it’s a bad sign, as it indicates a lot of cases are going undetected in the community.

Maine is in the midst of a phased reopening, even though, as the Press Herald reported May 17, it missed key White House benchmarks for doing so. The statewide trend in new and active cases has been generally increasing throughout the month of May.

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