The Monroe County public health department has stopped publishing county-level COVID-19 hospitalization statistics daily. The county health department said this week that it will instead report regional figures from the nine-county Finger Lakes region that New York state uses to assess reopening readiness.
The health department had been receiving multiple census files from hospitals in the county and communicating directly with hospital staff to compile the local numbers in its daily reports. “We are no longer doing that,” said spokesperson Julie Philipp.
Other counties in the area said they had no plans to change their daily reporting of hospital statistics.
Philipp said Monroe County is still collecting COVID-19 statistics from local hospitals, but the health department is no longer parsing them into a publicly accessible format.
The hospitalization data displayed on the county’s COVID-19 dashboard now reflects the number of people hospitalized in the Finger Lakes region. That data is collected by the state health department, but what counts as a COVID-19 hospitalization in the state data is different from what counted in the county’s statistics.
The county counted all novel coronavirus cases confirmed at hospitals, even if they didn’t result in hospitalization. If a patient arrived at a hospital in Monroe County for heart surgery, for example, but tested positive for the virus, the county would count that in its figures. The state, on the other hand, counts only those patients who are hospitalized for COVID-19 – a much lower figure.
On Aug. 21, the last day on which Monroe County posted hospitalization data separate from the region, the county health department reported 40 COVID-19 hospitalizations. The state reported 31 that day for nine counties including Monroe.
Dr. Emil Lesho, the hospital epidemiologist for Rochester General Hospital, said the change in definition “highlights the vagaries of data collection during a pandemic. It really shows you how crazy it is trying to keep track of a new virus and a new disease.”
Switching from the county’s previous definition of a hospitalization to the state’s more restrictive interpretation gives the appearance of local COVID-19 hospitalizations falling precipitously, down by 30% in two days.
“It could give people a false sense of safety, seeing the numbers drop,” Lesho said. “We have hospital beds available, but that doesn’t mean there’s no threat from COVID. It just means hospitals have room for you if you get really sick or if you need a ventilator.”
Philipp said the aim of the change is not to mislead people or downplay the severity of the outbreak, but to readjust the workload of health department staff.
No longer preparing local hospital data for daily publication will free up time for health workers who normally have a wide range of disease prevention and response duties but who have been largely focused on COVID-19 data for the last five months, she said.
Much of the data is still handled manually both at hospitals and at the county health department – a time-consuming process fraught with opportunities for error, though the county has been working to automate some of its processes.
Local health departments in the state have said they were stretched thin before the pandemic and have been putting aside important work while they address COVID-19.
The move to stop publishing local hospitalization data is also reflective of the county’s successful efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus and prevent overcrowding in hospitals, Philipp said.
“There’s no longer a daily risk of reaching capacity,” she said. “If we reach that point again where we need to show what’s happening each day, we can do that.”