Here’s what Floridians should expect as US winds down COVID data

The national public health emergency will end this week. What happens now?
A worker registers patients to be tested for COVID-19 at a site on Hillsborough Community College’s Brandon campus in 2022.
A worker registers patients to be tested for COVID-19 at a site on Hillsborough Community College’s Brandon campus in 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 10

Joseph Castellano, an 84-year-old Dade City retiree, is still in COVID-19 lockdown with his wife.

They don’t eat at restaurants or visit friends. Their groceries are dropped off at their house, and they wear masks when going to the doctor.

The couple fears contracting the virus, which has preyed on seniors. Throughout the pandemic, Castellano has relied on virus-tracking data to stay safe.

“There seem to be two different worlds,” said Castellano, who is vaccinated. “I’ve got friends and family that are living a normal life. And my wife and I are not. ... We’re still very, very cautious.”

Related: Florida health officials removed key data from COVID vaccine report

Starting Thursday, when the U.S. public health emergency ends, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to curtail reporting virus numbers.

That means the federal agency will no longer publish a weekly tally of nationwide infections and will discontinue its color-coded map of virus transmission levels. State-specific data on variants will also stop being released. Instead of reporting daily COVID-19 numbers, hospitals will have to submit data to the federal government once a week.

In Florida, a Department of Health spokesperson didn’t respond when asked whether the agency will continue to report on the state’s virus cases and deaths every two weeks.

As COVID-19 surveillance shifts to mirroring how officials track the flu, a top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said the agency has “the right data” for this phase of the outbreak.

“We will still be able to tell that it’s snowing, even though we’re no longer counting every snowflake,” Nirav Shah, the agency’s principal deputy director, told reporters in a phone call.

With at-home testing, many people don’t report their results to health authorities, so infections have been undercounted for months. Hospitalizations are a more reliable indicator of the pathogen’s spread.

With the end of the public health emergency, which has been in effect since January 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is losing its authority to collect certain COVID-19 data. Labs won’t be required to report negative test results, leaving the agency unable to calculate the country’s virus positivity rate.

Hospitals will stop sending daily COVID-19 data to federal health officials and will switch to reporting once a week. These requirements are set to expire in April 2024, but could end sooner.

Related: Florida COVID cases and deaths not included in latest CDC data

Additionally, the well-known, color-coded virus transmission and “community levels” maps will be retired.

This information will be replaced with a metric that tracks county hospital admissions, which federal officials will use to issue guidance on when people should mask up.

State-level estimates of variants will be scrapped. Officials will release only regional and national looks into what strains are spreading. The weekly reporting of total U.S. case counts will stop, too.

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Most of the country’s 64 jurisdictions, such as states and territories, have agreed to continue sharing vaccine data with federal officials. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it doesn’t have Florida’s signed agreement to do so. The state Department of Health didn’t respond on whether it will share the information.

While weekly case counts won’t be tracked, wastewater surveillance of the pathogen will continue. Federal health officials will also monitor data on emergency room visits for the virus.

Florida epidemiologists said the federal government’s decision was expected and understandable, but one of them argued that more data is always better when tracking the pandemic.

Nationally, the U.S. is still reporting more than 1,000 COVID-19 fatalities each week. Florida has recorded over 88,000 virus deaths since the outbreak began.

“It’s not that the pandemic is over or that COVID-19 is gone,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “We’re in a phase between the alarms blaring ... and a phase in which we have very predictable endemic disease.”

“There’s a lot of people still at risk, a lot of people still dying,” Salemi said.

Castellano worries about the federal data changes.

“It’s kind of like walking in the dark.”