Data ignorance is making COVID restrictions worse than they need to be

Jul 24, 2020

As Governor Inslee puts Washington back toward lockdown in response to COVID, he is still relying on broad social restrictions that limit the freedom of everyone, rather than targeted protections focusing on those most at risk. For example, the new social restrictions include rules that limit who can be together at a restaurant.

A better approach would be to provide treatment and assistance to those who are most at risk or who currently have coronavirus but are asymptomatic and may be spreading the illness. That approach, however, is not possible because we don’t have the information necessary to follow that strategy, in part because governor has failed to take the steps he promised.

For example, the governor’s revised COVID dashboard has a tab for “Populations at Higher Risk,” that is intended to measure the “Ability to immediately respond to outbreaks.” This is critical to preventing outbreaks from spreading. Despite being announced in early June, the online tab still promises this data is “coming soon.” The state still cannot measure and report its ability to reduce the spread of outbreaks among key, vulnerable populations nor does it have a plan to do so.

This is a metric created by the governor’s staff. They thought it was important enough to track and promise. But they can’t meet their own target, and everyone in the state is paying the price in the form of new restrictions on our economy, our families and our lives.

Testing can also help get the information necessary to focus on those with the illness and to reduce the spread. Fortunately, we have seen an increase in testing over the past month. However, there are now delays because labs don’t have the capacity to handle the larger number of tests.

The governor’s online dashboard has a metric for “testing capacity,” but it doesn’t actually measure capacity. The metric measures “number of individuals tested per new case,” which is a metric of the prevalence of coronavirus, not of testing capacity.

The previous, now-withdrawn dashboard with the “dials” did have a metric of lab capacity. It claimed labs in the state could process 22,233 tests per day. The highest number of tests the state has competed in any single day is 19,435. There should be enough capacity, and yet there are long delays.

I asked the state Department of Health what was causing the delay. Officials there responded, “More than 25 labs in the state are now able to process COVID-19 testing. Total capacity statewide continues to change, which means each lab is the best source for current numbers on their own testing capacity.” In other words, they don’t know their own current capacity. Instead they tell me to talk to each lab individually. State health officials don’t even know their ability to process tests.

When asked by media about these failures, Governor Inslee quickly blames President Trump. The governor blamed the president when Washington’s testing was stagnating, even as testing was increasing in every other neighboring state.

But the metrics for lab testing capacity and reducing outbreaks were created by the governor’s office. Their failure to have a metric or plan for “populations at higher risk” isn’t a failure of the federal government. It is the failure of the governor’s administration.

The price for this public health failure, however, is paid by those who have lost jobs due to the economic restrictions and the other people of Washington who are dealing with regulations that are more restrictive than they need to be because the state is incapable of collecting the information to develop a more responsible and accurate policy.