News Flash

Health - Public Health News

Posted on: May 17, 2020

Whatcom County COVID-19 Data Update

We are committed to sharing reliable and meaningful information about the COVID-19 outbreak as soon as we are able. This week, we’ve updated our website to include:

  • The weekly number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 attributed deaths for Sunday, May 10 through Saturday, May 16.
  • A chart showing the cumulative confirmed case count for Whatcom County through Saturday, May 16.
  • A map showing the rate of confirmed cases of COVID-19 by geographic regions within Whatcom County. 
  • A chart showing the percentage of total confirmed cases by race and ethnicity for the week ending Saturday, May 16.

Week Over Week Changes

No deaths attributed to COVID-19 were reported to us during the past week. Death data may fluctuate as death records and medical records are reconciled during our disease investigation process.

Last week, we received reports of 18 new cases of COVID-19. In the chart labeled “Confirmed COVID-19 Cases in Whatcom County, by Week” you might notice that only 12 new cases are reported for the week of May 10 - 16. Why is that? Our weekly charts are “epidemiological curves”, which traditionally use the date that a person’s symptoms started (also known as date of illness onset) in the x axis of the chart. The date of onset of illness is different from the date that we receive test results and report new cases. Some cases that were reported to us last week were among people whose symptoms actually started the week before.

We’ve also added a new chart this week that shows the cumulative count of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Whatcom County each day since March 10, when our first case was reported. As of Saturday, May 16, the cumulative count stands at 353. 

Sharing Data by Geography

We’re now sharing a map that shows the number and the rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases for geographic regions within Whatcom County. When looking at data by sub-county location, we often use public school districts to define community boundaries. We do this because many people tend to identify their community in connection to schools and school districts. We don’t use some other boundaries like zip codes or census tracts because:

  • Zip codes cut through cities and towns, so they don’t align well with the way many of us identify where we live.
  • Census tracts are much smaller boundaries that are more like neighborhoods. If we were to use census tracts in our data analysis, we couldn’t share a lot of the data publicly. That’s because we have to follow small numbers guidelines that protect the privacy and confidentiality of protected health information, and help us share reliable and accurate data.

Our COVID-19 case map includes both COVID-19 rates (the number of cases per 100,000 residents) and the total count of cases. We prefer to use rates to compare across geographies because they factor in different population sizes and demographics. A case count of 30 people is very different in a community of 1,000 people than it is in a community of 50,000. Using a rate helps us assess the differences using a fair comparison between groups.

We will update the COVID-19 map periodically but not weekly. It takes a significant amount of staff time to update the map, and we are doing our best to prioritize staff time for data tasks that provide us more powerful and meaningful data for decision making and a fuller picture of the impact of COVID-19 on Whatcom County. 

Interpreting the Mapped Data

Areas with lower rates per 100,000 residents or fewer confirmed cases don’t mean that they are safer zones. Where someone lives does not necessarily represent the place where they got COVID-19, or where they traveled while they were infectious, if they traveled at all. 

The limited amount of testing that was available earlier in the outbreak may also mean that the current rates and counts aren’t a good representation of the actual spread of COVID-19 throughout Whatcom County. 

What the map does show us is that the virus is present everywhere in our county, and we should all take precautions to protect ourselves and prevent spreading it to others, no matter where we live or work.

Reporting Confirmed Case Counts by Race and Ethnicity

We’ve also added a new chart reporting confirmed cases by race and ethnicity, which helps us understand if some groups of people are affected more than others. To provide accurate and meaningful analysis, a minimum of 80% of the data about local COVID-19 cases must have race and ethnicity reported. Just last week, we reached this threshold. 

Why now? Currently, most COVID-19 confirmed cases are reported through laboratory systems that are not required to get information on the patient’s race and ethnicity. We’ve started proactively collecting this information more thoroughly in our disease investigations. And, the Washington State Board of Health is currently reviewing the requirements for reporting race and ethnicity for all “notifiable conditions” (conditions that labs and healthcare providers are legally required to report to public health officials). This may give us an opportunity to require reporting of race and ethnicity data statewide for COVID-19 in the future.

Although there is still much to learn about COVID-19, current Whatcom County data show a disproportionate impact for some populations: people of Hispanic ethnicity and for American Indian/Alaska Native people. National and state data also show that people of color are hurt more by the effects of COVID-19, physically, socially and economically. Our 2018 Community Health Assessment found that many factors contribute to higher health risks and poorer health outcomes in specific populations. These factors include living and working conditions, underlying health conditions, income and wealth, and access to quality health care. The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted long-standing inequities and provides an urgent opportunity to address them.

Using Data for Action

Data helps us know how to focus our work. We are continually working to improve the scope and quality of our data in support of protecting our community’s health. As our data improves, we’ll gain a more complete picture of our local outbreak. Working with local communities, we can integrate this more detailed view into decision making about prevention, identification, treatment, community-based interventions and resources to protect Whatcom County residents.

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