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Value of COVID-19 numbers by ZIP code questioned

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

COVID-19 ZIP code map offers new new insight into outbreak Critics caution against reading too much into the numbers

Ten days ago, Rio Rancho resident Eddie Paulsgrove posed a question in an online chat group: “Just curious if we can find out Rio Rancho’s COVID numbers….Not trying to cause any anxiety, I just want the data.”

Days later, the state Department of Health began posting positive tests numbers by ZIP codes as well as countywide totals. And Paulsgrove had his answer.

In the Albuquerque metropolitan area, which includes Rio Rancho, the ZIP codes with the highest number of positive COVID-19 tests were in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights – where an outbreak erupted at a retirement home – and a large swath of southeast Bernalillo County that straddles Interstate 40.

Rio Rancho, with an estimated 98,000 people in two ZIP codes, had just 57 confirmed cases as of Friday. That’s about 17% of Sandoval County’s total number of cases and less than the case total confirmed so far at Albuquerque’s La Vida Llena nursing home.

“I have to say it was somewhat surprising … even with the serious lack of testing. With only 57 cases, we might be doing something right,” Paulsgrove told the Journal.

Officials urge caution in interpreting the numbers and say there could be many reasons for the raw data.

“It shouldn’t be an indicator as to what neighborhoods do I avoid,” said Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, who said the numbers more likely are a reflection of who has had better access to COVID-19 testing.

But with so much uncertainty about the novel coronavirus, public health agencies across the country have opted to provide the public with more information about positive tests arranged by ZIP codes.

“An additional layer of COVID-19 data, including cases by ZIP code, was added in order to provide New Mexicans, including communities and emergency management staff, with additional information,” said Jodi McGinnis Porter, a DOH spokeswoman.

What can be gleaned from the data? Are Rio Rancho residents, for instance, practicing better social distancing than South Valley residents? Are its residents less vulnerable physically to contracting the disease? Are the numbers a reflection of access to testing? And what about people who may be carrying the virus without showing symptoms and haven’t yet been tested?

The ZIP code data from the DOH doesn’t show the number of COVID-19 deaths or the number of tests performed.

McGinnis Porter cautioned, “The ZIP code data does not define neighborhoods that are more susceptible.”

Health departments traditionally rely on county counts rather than postal ZIP codes for public health purposes. And she added, “Some of our ZIP code data is incomplete because we do not always receive the ZIP code in patient addresses.” But that is likely only in a “few instances.”

Since its launch April 14, the new dashboard has attracted nearly a million hits. Last Tuesday, for example, 86,391 people visited the website at https://cvprovider.nmhealth.org/public-dashboard.html.

No specific counts for the ZIP code feature were available last week. The dashboard permits interactive searches by county and ZIP codes.

Several elected officials interviewed in Albuquerque say the ZIP code numbers are potentially misleading and too incomplete to draw any conclusions.

Cause for alarm

Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada said he initially posted the ZIP code information on his Facebook page after noticing ZIP codes in his district had more positive test results for the virus than most others in the city.

“I thought, ‘Well wow that’s bad. We go on a once-a-week run to the grocery store. We see the majority of the people aren’t covering their face, not wearing the gloves. Maybe it’s just my area just isn’t doing it right. Maybe they’re not taking it seriously.’ ”

“I thought, ‘what the heck, why 87121? Why 87105, the two most poorest areas in the county? You know, that’s my district.’ ”

Within hours, he said, he removed the test counts from his page. Before he did so, some commenters expressed alarm, he said. Others wanted to know what streets those with positive results lived on.

Quezada said he had hoped to enlighten the public, but “those statistics are kind of misleading. That doesn’t say that they contracted the virus in the district.”

He said his county district, which includes the South Valley, Southwest Mesa, East San Jose, Broadway, and Mesa del Sol has a workforce that likely includes health care and grocery store workers who might be more prone to contracting the disease.

“I just thought that data was really incomplete, and so I took it down,” he said. Without violating individual privacy rights, Quezada said, he would like to know how many of the cases are people who work in essential services, like health care.

Councilor Davis said, “I think it (the ZIP code data) is more about access to testing than it is about contagion.”

The ZIP code for Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district, for example, shows nearly as many positive cases as that of the nearby International District, which has about 10,000 more residents.

Davis said he thinks the discrepancy is due to the International District being on the “low end of the health and testing access.”

For instance, data from the Albuquerque Fire Rescue calls for possible COVID-19 patients “were pretty evenly distributed (across the city),” Davis said.

However, the AFR call map showed fewer COVID-19 calls in the International District than the surrounding areas.

Davis said the ZIP code data still can be “super important (to help show) where those COVID-19 tests need to be prioritized.”

In Rio Rancho, Paulsgrove, a retired government geologist, said he would like to know the number of people tested in each ZIP code, the number of hospitalizations and the number who have recovered.

He said he wants to better understand “what the threat is and what is its proximity?”

Reassurance

But Paulsgrove said the new ZIP code information has given him some peace of mind. “It appears our community is pretty static in the number of new cases, so I feel more comfortable engaging folks at a prudent distance.”

Tom Scharmen, a volunteer coordinator for the New Mexico Community Data Collaborative, a program of the Center for Health Innovation at New Mexico’s Public Health Institute, said such data is preliminary and limited.

“In the middle of the emergency, you can’t expect we will have complete information. In a sense, this is an ongoing tornado.”

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