After more than two years of covering COVID, I’ve developed my own ad hoc system for checking out how the outbreak is going where I live.
It involves checking 3 websites, and takes just 5 minutes.
It helps me decide how cautious or carefree I want to be on a given day.
A friend texted me recently: What was that COVID % cutoff you watch out for?
A concert she was planning on attending was canceled due to multiple band members testing positive for the virus.
I realized, in that moment, that I have developed my own three-point system for assessing how bad the COVID-19 outbreak is raging near me. It’s not a perfect system, but it helps me get a handle on how risky indoor, maskless activities may be day by day.
My system is a bit haphazard, but it’s also informed by more than two years of reporting on the pandemic — talking to experts, reading studies, and generally being immersed in the COVID chatter.
Here are the three key metrics that a public health reporter uses when deciding how cautious (or carefree) to be about COVID:
First, I check the % of positive tests
Public health experts say that even though testing data certainly isn’t a totally accurate picture of what COVID is doing in a given area, it is still a helpful gut check to gain basic situational awareness.
In New York, there’s a COVID Alert NY app for that. I like to toggle back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn to get a more granular picture of infection rates in both boroughs (where I spend most of my time in the city.)
When the % of positive tests dips below 1%, that’s one indication things are looking good. Right now, I’d say things in the city are OK, not great, but the infection trends are getting a little worse, day by day:
A test positivity rate of around 1-2% is a good signbut as more people are testing at home these days (or not at all), it may not be an accurate representation of the true scale of an outbreak.
If you don’t live in New York, try your city or state health department’s websitewhich may have the percentage of positive tests where you live.
Tea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has a county by county dashboard for the entire country. Pick your state and county, then scroll down to the “testing” area of the page to see whether cases are trending up or down, and note the % of positive tests where you live on the left hand side of the screen (the CDC data for New York looks a little different than the NYC data, because the federal data is a couple days behind):
Whatever tool you use, pay attention to the % of positive tests, and the rate of change. This can help you assess whether COVID rates are going up or down, and by how much.
Using the slider tool on the CDC website can give you a clear sense of the direction of the trend over days, weeks, or months. In the chart above, I have the slider tuned to a roughly three-month span between January 2 and March 29. It’s hard to see that cases are going up right now, because the current increase is dwarfed by the previous Omicron wave earlier in the year.
But when I move the slider further toward the right (below) looking only at the past month, the recent case increase comes into focus:
I take a peek at how much COVID is being flushed down the toilet
Because so many people are testing at home these days, and those results aren’t recorded by health authorities, my second stop is always the toilet. By that I mean, wastewater data.
Wastewater data, a newer tool than the others here, is the one that makes me feel the most aware of my surroundings. It’s a form of passive surveillance that only requires a flush. (People who have COVID-19 excrete it in their poop. Their deposits are not infectious — but they do turn viral tests positive.)
COVID spikes are often detected in wastewater three to seven days before cases start increasing, according to the CDC.
You can see that the level of virus in New York County (Manhattan) wastewater is going up, as indicated by the orange and yellow dots on the map, which show positive % changes at different treatment plants in the city.
To dig a little further into the data, I scroll down to the footnotes on the same CDC page, here:
Unfortunately, this table can’t be filtered, so you have to scroll through the entire thing to find your area (thank you Ctrl + F!) Once you’ve found your area, pay attention to the numbers in the far right hand column :
If the numbers are positive, that means there’s more virus in sewage now than 15 days ago, which in turn means more people are getting sick. A bigger positive number indicates more rapid spread. This doesn’t mean all positive numbers are bad and all negative numbers are good.
If there’s a big surge in cases, sewage numbers may be declining (negative) even though lots of people are still sick. Alternatively, numbers might be slightly positive in a place where case rates are very low, and that could just be noise in the data. So it’s important to read the data in a larger context.
Because the CDC wastewater data is only tracking sewage changes on a 15-day interval, I also like to gut check it against other nearby poop meters. Boston’s wastewater data is refreshed every 3-7 days (more often when COVID cases are spiking.)
The city has two graphs I check, one for the north part of town, and one for the south. Together they paint a clear picture of what’s going on:
The level of virus in wastewater is going up (more people are getting sick), but it’s still nowhere near the COVID-positive poop peak of the first Omicron wave at the beginning of the year.
There are other city-wide sewage datasets in spots around the country. Yale has data for seven spots in Connecticutand Biobot Analytics (the company that analyzes wastewater data for Boston) is doing excellent work on this nationally.
My third stop is the website of a public health professor in Florida
Epidemiologist Jason Salemi from Tampa, Florida created his own COVID-19 dashboards and visualizations back in 2020 and he’s been updating them ever since.
Salemi told me via Twitter DM that he created the site in the early days of the pandemic to get public data into “a format that your average person could easily digest.”
Salemi draws from both the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services for his data, and displays it in charts that are easier to read than many federal tables or websites.
I especially like his fourth chart. Scroll down until you see “#4 Comparing the % of the Population vs. the % of Recent Cases Each State Makes Up.”
Here you can see how cases in your state (or, city, if you live in New York or Washington, DC) stack up per capita. Again, these are only official, reported cases, so the true number of sick people is likely higher than what’s listed here:
In New York, you can see we’re punching above our weight right now, in terms of infections.
If I want more of a Weather Channel-style COVID forecast, I head to the IHME
When I want to think about where things are headed over the next several months, I check in on forecasts done by data experts and disease modelers. While I don’t do this as regularly as I consult the previous dashboards listed here, one of my favorite forecasting sources is the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Their modeling has been consulted by the federal government throughout the pandemic, and it tends to be reliable.
In their most recent US dispatch, from March 19, the IHME modelers said “it is certainly possible that the interaction of a rapid return to pre-COVID behavior, and the spread of BA.2could see a short period of increasing case numbers.” Sounds spot on to me.
Do you have a favorite COVID-19 dashboard or data source? Share your pick with this reporter via email.
Read the original article on Business Insider