9
Aug
2020

Victoria’s daily COVID reporting is hopelessly inadequate

by Stephen Duckett


Published in The Age, 9 August 2020
Photo: FiledIMAGE – stock.adobe.com

Having lost AFL to Queensland, the only remaining sport in Victoria is the daily COVID-19 press conference.

The build-up starts early, as we wait for the conference time to be announced. 11am if things look good, and later as the figures get worse. We then hear murmurs about daily case numbers and additional restrictions leaked to the media and spread wildly hours before the Premier takes to the podium. When he does, we watch with bated breath to know what the figures mean for our work or our school, for our kids or our parents, and for our future.

We’re occasionally thrown anecdotes about breaches of lockdown rules – about rogue trips to KFC or a city party – but rarely are we given anything more.

This is a woefully inadequate accountability system for a state government undertaking the largest public health response in generations.

What the public is told each day is a selected subset of the data that are currently being used to manage the pandemic. We are told lagging indicators only: what happened yesterday because of what happened weeks ago. An announcement on Thursday of 471 new cases is literally yesterday’s news.

The government has additional information it does not disclose – information it is using to track progress of the pandemic. It uses this additional information to massage its message – to hint whether things are getting better or worse.

What the government is sitting on are leading indicators. It knows the number of contacts each case had; the number of people it is now attempting to trace; and the proportion of contacts successfully traced in the past.

It knows the proportion of these new cases who were in quarantine when they became infectious. It knows whether the effective reproduction number is above or below 1, and whether it has increased or decreased.

An announcement of 500 new cases is vastly different if there are 5,000 contacts being traced compared to 1,000; and different again if most of those contacts are likely to be traced and quarantined compared to few.

Daily announcements should tell us about contacts being traced and about how efficient contact tracing is. More, and more useful information is provided to the public in other jurisdictions around the world.

Oregon sets a standard that 95 per cent of newly infected people are contacted within 24 hours, and reports against that daily. Washington DC reports the proportion of new COVID-19 cases that are from quarantined contacts, because these new cases are less likely to cause further outbreaks. They are well below their stated target of 60 per cent, but the target is set, and their figures are starting to improve.

We Victorians are told how many tests are conducted, but we are told nothing about the performance of the substantial testing regime. The speed with which testing is processed is crucial to our contact tracing capabilities and thus our understanding of how well we are prepared to fight this virus. We are told that it usually takes 1-to-3 days, but no data is provided. The National Health Service in England reports weekly on testing turnaround time.

These figures are essential, not only for holding the government to account, but in rapidly identifying areas of weakness and addressing them. Providing essential figures in formats easy to use by journalists and researchers helps the public understanding of the pandemic we are all facing together.

The Victorian Parliament is essentially in hibernation and so the key public accountability is through these daily media circuses. The public has a right to know the full story and be told more about what is happening. This will not require any more work on overburdened public servants than simply sharing with the affected public the information they are already using to manage the pandemic.