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Many States Are Not Reporting The Latest COVID-19 Numbers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many states have online dashboards to report COVID-19 numbers, but some took them down or stopped updating them frequently when case numbers dropped sharply last winter. Seemed like the pandemic was almost over, didn't it? Now with numbers surging again, some states are still not updating their COVID data, and public health experts say that's a problem. Will Bauer of Nebraska Public Media reports.

WILL BAUER, BYLINE: For more than a year, Nebraska's COVID dashboard displayed loads of information, including new case numbers for every county in the state. But at the end of June, Republican Governor Pete Ricketts shut the dashboard down. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths were at all-time lows, and Ricketts said the staff publishing the COVID data were needed elsewhere. A month later, though, case counts were rising sharply again. Now they're 15 times higher than when the dashboard went away. Reporters asked Ricketts about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE RICKETTS: We have no announcement with regard to the dashboard at this time.

BAUER: One reason Ricketts shut down the dashboard when case numbers dropped is because Nebraska counties have fewer than 20,000 residents, and he said publishing county-level COVID data could violate state and federal health privacy laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICKETTS: We have HIPAA laws that we have to follow and concerns about privacy is one of the reasons why we can't break down that granular data.

BAUER: But Nebraska's former state epidemiologist, Dr. Tom Safranek, isn't buying it.

TOM SAFRANEK: I've never seen anyone dictate that data like this should not be disclosed.

BAUER: He says he never got a complaint about data he released violating HIPAA or harming an individual in three decades as Nebraska's epidemiologist and that failing to report important data now is, quote, "public health malpractice." Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Obama, says it's possible to release detailed numbers without violating privacy and privacy laws.

TOM FRIEDEN: For example, you wouldn't want to say, we have this-many cases of this age, race, ethnicity and gender. But you can say how many cases total. That doesn't violate anyone's confidentiality.

BAUER: And people in Nebraska want to know the numbers, people like Lucas Peterson.

LUCAS PETERSON: In the beginning of the pandemic, I was calling my doctor pretty much every day at that point.

BAUER: Peterson is immunocompromised. He's a supervisor for the food and beverage department at an arena in the capital city, Lincoln, a job that puts him in contact with people from all across the state. He checks COVID trends regularly through the county health department website and what's in the local newspaper. But as the delta variant has caused a new wave, he's largely blind to trends across the state.

PETERSON: It would be helpful if the governor were to not have stalled the reporting statewide because we would then be able to capture that information for those people coming in. So that's why I have a lot of caution and a lot of concern.

BAUER: Statewide, the current COVID surge in Nebraska has risen as high as it was last fall, just before it reached its peak. Former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden says Americans continue to need good, detailed COVID data.

FRIEDEN: You need to know, in essence, how hard it's raining COVID outside so that you can make a decision as to whether you're going to go out, whether you're going to wear a mask, what kind of a mask, whether you're going to go to a restaurant or not.

BAUER: Without the data, some say Nebraskans will continue to feel like they're flying blind.

For NPR News, I'm Will Bauer in Lincoln, Neb. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.