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Trends, problems in COVID-19 data explained at FRCOG biweekly meeting

Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2020 4:18:52 PM

Trends and problems in the local data on the pandemic were the first discussion in what is expected to be a regular series on local public health policy with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG).

The series is called the COVID Coordination Roundtable. It is intended to be the authoritative source of public health guidance for town officials and health workers, said FRCOG Public Health Planner Mark Maloni, though anyone can access it at frcog.org. The Zoom meetings are scheduled for every other Monday, at least through December.

The first meeting, on Monday afternoon, was an overview of the data available on the website of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, publichealthwm.org. The institute’s Director of Community Research and Evaluation Kathleen Szegda explained how to understand the data, and noted some potential problems in it.

Each of the four counties of Western Massachusetts has a “dashboard” reflecting the latest data from the state Department of Public Health, which is updated every two weeks. The most recent data was released Sept. 9.

The major metrics are numbers of cases, tests and deaths. Each is also expressed as a rate of incidents per 100,000 people, which Szegda said makes the information comparable across regions that vary in population.

Franklin County’s rates of COVID-19 have fluctuated slightly from week to week but are generally steady, Szegda said. In the most current data, there are 11 cases.

Meanwhile, capacity for testing has increased. In the latest two-week period there were 5,970 tests, compared to 5,183 in the previous period.

This means the rate of positive tests has decreased, even as the actual rate of infection has remained relatively stable, Szegda noted.

Franklin County compares favorably to the state on the whole. In average numbers of daily cases per 100,000 people, Franklin County has 1.1 percent, while Massachusetts has 4.6. In percent of tests that are positive, Franklin County is at 2.2 percent, and Massachusetts is at 0.97.

Yet there is at least one potential problem in the data, which was pointed out by Deerfield Selectboard Chair Carolyn Shores Ness — local boarding schools have been testing their students and staff heavily. Their testing will influence county-wide numbers; but because the schools are largely isolated from the rest of the community, Shores Ness noted, the frequency of their testing likely distorts the numbers for the whole county.

“These are useless numbers if (the schools) are doing 4,000 tests a week,” Shores Ness said. “That’s the thing I would really like to know — how much testing is being done in Franklin County, not in the schools. Because the schools are 100 percent isolated.”

Szegda admitted that this could be a legitimate issue with the data.

“That’s been a challenge with the COVID data,” she explained. “There are so many contextual factors that are really important to understand this data.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.


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