In the battle against COVID-19, where’s the data?

“We need to be much more sophisticated than just analyzing the number of new cases, severe cases and deaths,” said Nadav Davidovitch.

Health care workers take test samples to check for coronavirus, Lod, July 5, 2020 (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Health care workers take test samples to check for coronavirus, Lod, July 5, 2020
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Even after extensive effort by the Health Ministry, researchers and health professionals often do not have enough access to complete, raw data sets to make important decisions during the coronavirus crisis, according to Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
The country is in a state of uncertainty, he told The Jerusalem Post, adding that data transparency is essential to diminish that uncertainty, help leaders make proper decisions and increase public trust in the decisions being made by the Health Ministry and the government.
According to Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer: “Policy makers and researchers need to have access to updated, clean data so that they can study the disease and possible interventions. The data cannot remain monopolized in the hands of the Health Ministry,” which “needs to provide the resources to make the data accessible to all researchers based on a formalized data request.”
So where is the data?
According to Davidovitch, the pandemic gradually moved from a state of prevention and containment to one of widespread community transmission, which caused the data-gathering system to become overwhelmed.
“It took time to arrange all the categories and forms for data collection,” he said, explaining that in the beginning, data was not available for good reason – it was being managed by different entities, and it took time to have all the information consolidated into one system.
Later on, data became more available, but only in an aggregated form – possibly for privacy reasons, which he said was understandable.
Now, however, nearly five months after the pandemic hit Israel, the data is still not fully available, especially for more sophisticated analysis, which Davidovitch said is becoming problematic.
For example, it is still unknown where as many as a third of the country’s coronavirus cases became infected. Moreover, the heated discussion in the Knesset coronavirus committee for the last several days has centered on the Health Ministry’s inability to provide exact data on the number of people infected in swimming pools. It has also been difficult to know how effective the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance system is.
“Sometimes the data is available for decision-making in the [Health Ministry] headquarters,” Davidovitch said, “but less so for academicians, health funds, regional health authorities and other professionals” who want to answer such pressing questions as: Where are people getting infected? Where are the infected person’s contacts from? How many of them had symptoms, how fast did they know, and how many patients were asymptomatic?”
“We need to be much more sophisticated than just analyzing the number of new cases, severe cases and deaths,” he said. “It is very hard to get the raw data according to individual cases and not just aggregated according to age or region. We want to do multivariate analysis, and we cannot… There is a lot of bureaucracy.”
Even worse, Davidovitch said, many of the epidemiological investigations are being recorded by hand on paper, which means there is a long delay between input of the information and when it is finally synced with the Health Ministry and other data.
Since Health Minister Yuli Edelstein took office in May, and even more so with the entrance of new director-general Prof. Chezy Levy, the data has become more accessible to the public. The daily situation report is updated to the ministry’s coronavirus website as often as three times per day. Moreover, in recent weeks, the ministry has rolled out both a printed and video explainer as to how to understand the data dashboard.
The site also includes an option to download an Excel file with specific data points: the date and number of people tested; number of people in serious condition, in the hospital and ventilated; total number of patients and total number of dead.
But it is not enough, Leshem said.
“The Health Ministry needs more resources” to enable it to carry out this function, which is “critical during a major outbreak,” he said.
Leshem recommended that good data management be harnessed from outside the ministry to help support these efforts.