U of M disease experts urge CDC to standardize COVID-19 tracking

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz
Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota speaks at a press conference on April 22 with Gov. Tim Walz. Osterholm says standardized and accessible information about the coronavirus is important in figuring out whether public health efforts at slowing its spread are working.
Glen Stubbe | AP file

A report released Thursday by infectious disease experts at the University of Minnesota urges the federal government to overhaul the current patchwork approach to tracking outbreaks of COVID-19 in the United States.

The report from the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy outlines inconsistent methods of data collection on coronavirus infections from state to state.

The center’s director Michael Osterholm said some places are not releasing information about new infections promptly or with details that could help pinpoint where exactly outbreaks are happening and whether efforts to limit spread are working.

Much of the information that infectious disease experts are pulling together doesn’t include demographic information about patients like race and ethnicity.

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“We know that this disease has disproportionately been impacting communities of color across the nation,” Osterholm said. “That severely limits our conclusions we can draw about what’s happening.”

The report recommends that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention work with epidemiologists to develop a standardized approach to tracking COVID-19 and implement it by the end of the year. The report’s authors also urge the CDC to help states automate reporting systems whenever possible.

“A lot of what we’re doing right now to collect this information is like using tin cans and a string,” Osterholm said. “What we need is to be able to use the modern tools of electronic surveillance, in terms of moving information from laboratories to hospitals to public health agencies to the CDC in a seamless way.”

The report also emphasizes the importance of coordinating tracking of both COVID-19 and influenza as flu season approaches.