The state Department of Health is grappling with how to present COVID-19 infection data without misleading the public on vaccine effectiveness.
We appreciate the quandary health officials find themselves in. Their job is to safeguard public health. One of the best ways to do that is to encourage vaccinations and follow-up boosters. If the way data is presented gives a false impression vaccines don’t work, then they’re right to reconsider what they’re doing. But not if it undermines trust.
New Mexico has a good track record of getting people vaccinated. Only 8.6% of adults here are completely unvaccinated, according to the health department’s website, compared to a national rate of 15% the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last December. Nearly 80% of New Mexico adults have completed a primary series of vaccinations.
State health officials won many hearts and minds when the data offered an easy-to-reach conclusion: More unvaccinated people were hospitalized with COVID and/or died than vaccinated people.
But about a month ago, the state changed what it posts to its Vaccine Dashboard. There used to be a page showing data from the last four weeks. Originally, that data showed almost all serious cases were among the unvaccinated.
For example, in the report dated Feb. 7, unvaccinated individuals accounted for 51% of new cases, 74% of hospitalizations and 88.9% of the deaths in the previous four weeks.
But as the omicron variant started to spread, vaccinated and boosted individuals began to make up a greater share of serious cases. In the report dated April 18, unvaccinated people accounted for just 39.1% of cases, 55.7% of hospitalizations and 45.5% of the deaths in the previous four weeks.
The data didn’t appear to reinforce the truth as conclusively as it once did. The state stopped publishing four-week vaccination reports the next week. In the process, it stopped reporting the number of “breakthrough” cases — vaccinated people who got sick with COVID-19.
Scientists certainly understand what’s going on. If four out of five adults in New Mexico are vaccinated, the pool of people who could get sick is weighted heavily for the vaccinated. And who is most likely to seek a vaccine and a booster? Someone who is immunocompromised, elderly or at high-risk for complications from a COVID infection.
So why not use that information to quantify the data?
Instead, Dr. Christine Ross, the state epidemiologist, said the decision was made to pull breakthrough data from public reports. “There’s different adjustments that would need to be made to this type of analysis for it to continue accurately displaying risk or vaccine effectiveness,” she said.
So make them. The current approach, removing data, is not transparent. A critic could say the state is abandoning data because it doesn’t fit a certain narrative — even amid legitimate concerns nuances are lost on the public.
The last health department report showed the unvaccinated made up nearly half of deaths (at 45.5%), even though they account for 20% or less of the population. DOH fears people may only see more vaccinated people died and make snap judgment that vaccines are ineffective.
New Mexico is not alone in rethinking what to share with the public. A state Department of Health spokeswoman said officials in 25 jurisdictions are grappling with how to publish data in a manner that accounts for issues like comorbidities, reinfection status, time since a person’s vaccination, age and access to care.
Multiple studies and clinical trials show the vaccines are effective at preventing serious disease and death. What has become an outdated reporting method doesn’t easily reinforce that point. We think the state should present breakthrough numbers with supporting data that puts cases in proper context.
With cases in New Mexico up by 41% last week, it’s important the government provides clear, complete data. Changing the way it reports data, no matter how justified, is problematic. Withholding information can actually feed anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, the opposite of the health department’s intent.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.