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A new COVID-19 tracker makes understanding and assessing your local risk easier. Getty Images
  • Currently, our approach to reporting COVID-19 statistics in the United States is “disjointed.”
  • Experts say a more unified, national approach is essential in getting the pandemic under control.
  • Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) is working to change how we report statistics.
  • The institute released an online tracker to help us better understand local risk and make comparisons with other communities.
  • The tracker uses color coding to show local risk level.

There are many statistics available regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, although they aren’t necessarily well coordinated at the national level.

With so many numbers being available, it can be difficult to understand what they mean, how they work together, and how to apply them.

However, experts say a more unified, national approach is essential in getting the pandemic under control.

An organization at Harvard University called Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) is attempting to solve this situation.

On July 1, the institute released a set of tools, including an online risk-assessment map.

This map makes it simpler to make apples-to-apples comparisons between local communities and visualize your actual risk level.

According to Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, “those countries who have been most effective in containing the virus have had unified approaches.”

He names Italy and Greece as two examples.

In the United States, however, we have numerous responses, and they’re “disjointed,” Halkitis says.

“Without a unified response, the country as a totality cannot get the virus under control,” he said.

Instead, we’ll continue to see regional outbreaks that spread to other regions, he explains.

“One set of rules, one set of guidelines, one approach to tracing, one approach to testing will ultimately prove most effective for our country,” Halkitis said.

Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Health, says some important metrics that we look at when it comes to COVID-19 are the number of new cases, the number of tests performed, and the number of hospital admissions.

Looking at the number of new cases can tell us about the spread of disease, he explains

“Other metrics, such as the number of hospital admissions, tell us not only about the spread of disease, but about the capacity of our healthcare system to handle those new cases,” Labus said.

However, as far as the new tracking tool, HGHI chose to use the number of new daily cases per 100,000 people as its standard metric.

Labus says this metric was selected to account for the fact that different areas have different population sizes. Larger states will naturally have more cases because they have larger populations.

By calculating the number of new cases per 100,000 people, we can make direct comparisons between states with differing populations.

Labus further notes there’s a 2- to 3-week delay between when a person contracts the virus and when they test positive.

We should keep in mind that any numbers we’re looking at today are actually a reflection of where we were 2 or 3 weeks before.

Halkitis says state and local governments can use this type of data to help target their own approach to containing COVID-19.

He believes in a “four T approach” involving targeting, testing, tracing, and treating.

The data can help governments target where to concentrate their efforts in testing, contact tracing, and making certain that there are adequate resources available for treatment.

The data can also be used to see how effectively states are using this strategy to contain the spread of the disease, he says.

Halkitis feels that right now we’re seeing the result of businesses and other entities reopening too quickly.

In his opinion, states should “phase back” based on the data if the disease isn’t being adequately controlled.

Halkitis said, “The map is really useful in terms of color in determining where the hot spots are.”

If your community has fewer than one new daily case per 100,000, it’s color-coded green. One to nine new cases is yellow. Ten to 24 is orange. Above 25 is red.

The color green indicates that your community is on track for containing the virus. Yellow means there’s community spread. Orange means spread is accelerating. Red sends the signal that spread has intensified to the point that stay-at-home orders may be necessary.

Labus notes, however, that low risk isn’t the same as no risk.

It “does not mean that you can stop taking precautions to protect yourself and others,” he says.

Halkitis adds that we should “always wear a mask in public.”

In addition, we should try to meet in outside venues rather than indoor ones whenever possible and maintain physical distancing, he says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends such measures as handwashing and use of hand sanitizer, covering your coughs and sneezes, and daily cleaning and disinfection of frequently touched surfaces.

“We need to continue to be vigilant,” Halkitis concluded.

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