Stats on wastewater and ER visits coming to Lawrence health department’s COVID-19 updates

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Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health is saying goodbye to its big yellow graph of new COVID-19 cases, but it will be replaced with some new stats.

The new statistics will still be released on Wednesdays, but with “a suite” of new information to help folks make informed decisions for themselves, said Daniel Smith, a spokesperson for the organization. Those will include “leading” and “lagging” indicators, Smith said.

Coming soon to LDCPH’s updates will be wastewater numbers, “which many see as an extremely useful tool for anticipating case counts and transmission rates,” Smith said via email Tuesday.

Those numbers may be familiar to some. The city tracked those numbers through the early part of the pandemic, and in August it joined a national effort to detect and monitor COVID-19 and monkeypox in the wastewater. Concentrations of genetic material in the wastewater can indicate the presence of a virus in a community and help public health officials mitigate spread.

You can see the city’s current COVID-19 wastewater charts via Verily Public Health at this link.

The other “leading” indicator to be added to the LDCPH updates is syndromic surveillance, “which is a fancy term that refers to ER visits,” Smith said. “If folks are familiar with the weekly RSV/Flu updates we’ve been doing for a while they will have seen this kind of data used before.”

Here’s an example of what those look like:

The Dec. 30, 2022 update indicates that there had been increases in the percentage of patients who had flu (the blue line) and RSV (the orange line) during visits to the emergency department in recent weeks. The numbers have been declining for most patients, but for those ages 0-9, both percentages increased during the most recent week shown on the chart.

“The syndromic surveillance data will be presented as a line graph, so some people might instinctively assume it is a replacement for the big yellow graph, but the information it contains is much less encompassing, only displaying the number of folks who are positive for COVID at the ER,” Smith said. “This is a much smaller sample that won’t reflect overall COVID levels but might allude to rising rates throughout the community.”

There will be two familiar sources of information still included in the updates: hospitalizations and deaths.

Both are called “lagging” indicators: “Because these are outcomes of COVID they will not enable people to proactively alter their behavior out of caution, but they will indicate how severe the current COVID situation is,” Smith said.

As for the big yellow graph that shows the rolling 14-day average number of new cases, LDCPH will no longer receive that data. It’s now being routed to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment instead, so the change is based largely on practical necessity, Smith said.

“Due to a range of other factors like at-home testing, widespread vaccination, and an increase in individual knowledge of pandemic precautions, we also believe that this is a good time to continue reducing how much granular information we are putting out though,” he added.

LDCPH will also shift away from using its own transmission indicator, which has been based on the metrics generated by that moving average, and instead rely on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and KDHE indicators, Smith said.

“Our indicator has been in the ‘LOW’ category for quite a while, and the CDC indicator also has Douglas County listed as being ‘LOW’, while KDHE has us listed as ‘Substantial’,” Smith continued. “All three indicators use different metrics to determine levels, so they aren’t directly comparable, but we feel that presenting both the KDHE and CDC levels will do the best job of reflecting where we’re at as a County.”

To receive LDCPH’s email updates, sign up at this link.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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