Editorial: County releases important local data about COVID-19

Published 12:05 am Sunday, March 29, 2020

It should have come as a dose of reality last week when the Rowan County Health Department released the average age of people diagnosed here with COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

That average age was 49.9 on Thursday when there were 12 confirmed cases in the county. One day later, Rowan County became the site of the state’s fifth death from COVID-19 — four N.C. residents and one Virginia man have died in the state — and the case number rose to 14.

The average age should be a sign that all Rowan residents, not just the elderly, should take precautions to prevent the virus, which has symptoms that include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The elderly and those with underlying health conditions are at greater risk for severe cases of COVID-19. But people outside of those categories are unlikely to avoid it entirely by going about life as usual. More importantly, a mild case will not be a pleasant experience.

Rowan County Public Health Director Nina Oliver said Friday there had been 312 tests submitted to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which included 298 negative and 14 positive results. That’s important information for the public because, while not perfect, it provides some idea about the infection rate locally.

Rowan County last week also released more detailed data in the form of an interactive zip code map, showing where cases are occurring in the county. That’s better for public knowledge than numbers in each N.C. county, most of which have an area that’s hundreds of square miles.

Mecklenburg County’s health director said last week when deciding to stop publication of its zip code map that it could give people the idea there were certain safe “zones.” The health director did not provide any evidence of a false sense of security, the Charlotte Observer reported. Meanwhile, Mecklenburg County government said in a post on Twittter that there is widespread community infection there and that everyone needs to be cautious, but it’s possible to simultaneously communicate the urgency of an entire community being at risk and provide valuable, granular data about specific areas that are hardest-hit in a county.

Rowan County should continue on its current track — periodically publishing the average age of positive patients, zip code data and case numbers — as well as look for opportunities to release more information that does not jeopardize patient privacy.

It’s important for local and state government to provide the general public with valuable information about the community around them as both weather a public health crisis. Doctors, nurses and health care professionals who might not otherwise have access to granular data also need the information to communicate to their patients the seriousness of COVID-19.