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Orange County could drop demographic, vaccine data from COVID-19 updates

Orange County plans to change what it tells the public about COVID-19, emphasizing longer-term trends over daily or weekly case counts and trading local for state-generated numbers about vaccination rates, a politically charged data point that can be key to tracking where the disease is hitting hardest.

County health officials aren’t putting a timeline on when they’ll present a new version of their online COVID-19 dashboard, but they confirmed Friday, Oct. 27 that a shift is underway.

“Technically, we do and will still collect that data. But we’re trying to be mindful of limited resources and not duplicate effort,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the chief medical and health officer with the Orange County Health Care Agency.

“We’re still trying to get out information that is important to the public.”

The two data points expected to go away or be de-emphasized – vaccination rates and COVID-related demographic data – are both political hotbuttons. During the first two years of the pandemic, county board meetings and other public gatherings were often marked by angry speeches from people venting about vaccine rules and who sometimes questioned the lethality of the coronavirus.

But Chinsio-Kwong and other county officials said Friday that any proposed changes aren’t being driven by pressure from the public or any elected officials.

“It’s not a political decision,” said County Executive Officer Frank Kim. “I honestly don’t know what data they’re going to put on there or not, but I can say I’ve received no direction from the board to include some data points and exclude others.”

The expected shift locally comes as other health agencies in Southern California have either adjusted their public information in similar ways or are considering doing so.

It also comes as the coronavirus has dropped into a sometimes-lethal-but-generally lower-level health threat, something public officials still describe as a pandemic (because mutations and other factors can lead to spikes in case counts) but no longer a “health emergency.” Last week, 16 people died of COVID-19 in Orange County, according to county data. That’s a death rate less than one-twentieth of what the county experienced in the first weeks of 2021, when local cases and death counts peaked.

The new dashboard also will reflect new ways of handling the pandemic. The county, for example, is no longer a primary provider of vaccines, a role that now is handled by hospitals and pharmacies and is paid for by insurers or individuals paying out of pocket. As a result, Chinsio-Kwong said the county will “make sure everybody knows how and where to get” vaccines, and emphasize its now limited vaccine outreach to people who still rely on the county, such as the uninsured.

The new era for the coronavirus also has rendered some long-standing data points about COVID-19 either less relevant or less reliable. Testing, for example, often takes place at home, not in a hospital or other venue where health providers will track each test and report results to public health officials. That, in turn, makes data points like “weekly case counts” and “positivity rate” less reliable and tougher to track.

Also, as the virus has waned, fewer people are seeking information about COVID-19 from the Health Care Agency. A chart from the county suggested views on the agency’s dashboard earlier this month were less than one-third what they were earlier this year and expressed a sliver of the online interest expressed during the height of the pandemic.

Chinsio-Kwong said all of those factors are pushing the agency toward a bigger goal – regaining public trust.

“We already know, throughout the pandemic, there was a distrust of information providers, including ourselves,” Chinsio-Kwong said. “So it’s very important that the information we put out is reliable and accurate and important to people. I have been focusing on that as we reach out to the community.”

Still, Chinsio-Kwong and others did not dispute that vaccination rates and other information remain important points for health officials – or anybody – tracking the disease.

As it stands, the Health Care Agency information allows for a pretty simple test of the efficacy of vaccines.

In the 92677 ZIP code (which includes part of Laguna Niguel), the vaccination rate is 64.3% for people younger than 65 and 100% for people 65 and older. And the COVID-19 case rate in that ZIP code is 2.1 per 100,000 people.

In the 92672 ZIP code (which covers part of San Clemente), vaccination rates are lower, 47.2% for younger adults and children, and 85.9% for people 65 and older. And in the lower-vaccine community, the COVID-19 case rate is about 10% higher, about 2.4 cases per 100,000 people.

It’s not yet clear if such a comparison will be possible with the county’s next dashboard.

That said, Lilly Simmering, the deputy county executive officer, said the county’s message will remain unchanged.

“It’s the same stance we’ve taken with flu vaccines, TB (tuberculosis) vaccines and all that: Get your vaccines,” Simmering said. “That’s public health’s role. We don’t see that as political.”

Source: Orange County Register

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