D.C. Council pushes health officials on timing of covid case data

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D.C.’s legislators are arguing with local public health officials about how much case data the city should disclose to the public as coronavirus cases seem to be surging locally and nationally with much less surveillance than in earlier covid waves.

Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) expressed unease — which many on the council share — about D.C.’s practice of publishing a modest amount of data on the virus once a week, rather than every weekday as the health department did for nearly two years.

Mendelson noted that the city’s reported rate of new weekly cases per 100,000 residents shot up from 168 to 298 over the course of one week lately — its highest level since the January omicron surge.

Mendelson asked “If this is going to grow, to spike — don’t we want to know more recently than once a week?”

The health department’s director of emergency responded by saying residents don’t need to monitor daily fluctuations in data. “Allow the public health experts to do what they do best and look at the trend,” Ashley said.

Tensions have risen between the council and health department since early May, when the department — which had been reporting new coronavirus cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at least weekly and sometimes daily — stopped reporting cases altogether for 12 days.

On Friday, Axios reported that Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt had responded, discussing the reasons for the gap in data reporting and asking council members to refrain in the future from publicly questioning her agency. “The recent public comments by several Councilmembers have had the unfortunate effect of undercutting trust in DC Health and public health,” she wrote.

A city website suggests that 1,747 out of 6,440 3- and 4-year-olds — to whom the District offers weekly tests since they are too young to get vaccinated — got tested last week. But Donahue said he thought the number might actually be about twice as high.

Though Donahue said he would send Allen the answers later, Allen expressed frustration that although he submitted his questions in advance, Donahue did not come prepared with the answers. That left him without the opportunity to ask follow-up questions until the next such meeting, two weeks away, Allen noted.

Ashley reassured him “I think ‘concern’ is probably a little aggressive at this point.”

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