The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even from the CDC, America gets two very different pandemic messages

Everything is fine, except that it isn’t

Confirmed coronavirus cases are listed at the Salt Lake County Health Department on May 13, 2020. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
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On Tuesday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s preferred dashboard for evaluating the state of the coronavirus pandemic offered a broadly optimistic picture.

In most of the country, the “community levels” metric was scored as “low,” shown on the CDC’s map in a sort of dark hospital-wall green. Only in the Northeast were things fairly uniformly “medium” or “high” — the latter shown not in scarlet but in a more muted orange.

Now, you would be forgiven for asking a useful question here: What, exactly, is a “community level?” Well, according to the CDC, it’s a measure of “the higher of the new admissions and inpatient beds metrics, based on the current level of new cases per 100,000 population in the past 7 days.”

In other words, it’s a measure of hospitalizations.

In other words, it’s not a measure of how the virus is spreading, but instead of how much damage the virus has caused after that spread occurred.

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This is not how the CDC used to present the state of the pandemic. By default, it used to show not hospitalizations but new cases. And you can still view that data on the CDC website after clicking a bit. How does community transmission look?

Far worse.

Not only is that map choked with bright red, but it shows that the virus has spread broadly outside of the Northeast, where case totals had begun to surge several weeks ago. And by using the CDC’s animated map tool, we can see how the level of “high” transmission has increased across the country over the past month.

This is a picture of a pandemic in which the virus is spreading broadly. It is a very different picture than that soothingly green map at the top of this article. This map shows where wildfires are burning. The green map shows the percentage of forest that’s 100 percent burned — obscuring where the conflagration is out of control.

There are a few obvious reasons for the CDC having made the change. One is that the rise of at-home testing as an evaluation metric has meant more cases that are going unreported. So, as many have noted, the current known rates are probably a more substantial undercount than would have been expected even a few months ago.

Another is that the new variants of the virus have been less likely to lead to extended hospitalization than prior versions. We can see that by looking at the relationship between hospitalizations or deaths and cases. From September 2020 through August 2021, the number of people hospitalized for covid-19 was about 81.8 percent of the number of new cases six days prior. That seems high, except that most covid patients stay in the hospital for multiple days. (The number of new hospitalizations averaged about 9.6 percent of new cases six days prior during that period.) The number of deaths relative to cases three weeks prior averaged about 1.5 percent.

Since Dec. 15 of last year, those averages have been 43 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively. A lower fraction of hospitalizations and of deaths.

A big part of this is a function of vaccines, of course. Vaccines reduce the risk of hospitalization and death. But as months pass and the virus continues to spread, the effectiveness of those vaccines wanes. In April, The Washington Post reported that an increased percentage of covid deaths were among the vaccinated, particularly the elderly.

As has been the case for a long time, Americans are divided in how they view the pandemic, particularly along partisan lines. New polling from Axios and Ipsos shows that Republicans are about six times as likely to say that the pandemic is over as are Democrats (59 percent to 10 percent). And, also reflecting long-standing patterns, those who are less likely to be vaccinated or take such preventive measures as mask-wearing are also more likely to say the pandemic is over.

On Wednesday, the CDC announced that a third of Americans live in places where they should wear masks inside. Those are places with high levels of community transmission — the places in red on the second map above. But that’s not the map that you see when you first go to the CDC’s coronavirus data portal. Instead you see the chill, green map.

To paraphrase John Lennon and Yoko Ono: The pandemic is over, if you want it. Lots of Americans want it. The CDC is making that view easier to hold than it probably should.