Sitka’s COVID dashboard underwent a makeover recently. Now Sitkans have less information than they used to about how the coronavirus is playing out in the community. KCAW spoke with local and state officials to try to understand the changes, and discrepancies in the numbers.

If you check Sitka’s COVID stats regularly, you may have noticed the city’s COVID dashboard, where local coronavirus case data has been reported since the early months of the pandemic, changed on September 1. 

“We didn’t make one change, we made quite a number of changes,” says Fire Chief Craig Warren, who is also the Incident Commander for the Sitka EOC.

The city used to publish individual case information- like the sex and age of each new case, whether the person was experiencing symptoms and how they likely contracted the virus. And the number of “active” cases is no longer available. Warren says the state has stopped providing that information to the city, and not everyone is happy about it. 

“And I’m trying to get this out to the community so that maybe my phone will ring a few less times. I’m really trying to help people understand that we have not ever had numbers that were ours,” Warren says. “We don’t go do testing, we don’t do contact tracing. All of the numbers in the old dashboard were the information that was shared to us by the section of epidemiology and public health.” 

Warren says the information is missing not because the city’s EOC doesn’t want to share it. He says they don’t have access anymore. 

“And they [the DHSS] have decided that they’re not going to share the information that we used to have. Instead, they are only going to give us the information we are now showing on the new dashboard, which is new cases each day,” he says. “We lost all of that information not because we get it and don’t want to show it. It’s because we truly no longer have it, we are only showing the community the information that the state is willing to share with us.”

The city also shifted to tracking cases over a 7 day period instead of a 14 day period. This method aligns with the Centers for Disease Control’s and the state’s metrics for tracking cases and determining a community’s risk level. Now, in order to be in “low” alert, Sitka must report zero cases over a 7 day period. Sitka shifts into high alert when 9 or more cases have been reported in a week. 

“We get a few cases on one day, it’s going to be a quicker uptrend, but we dropped those few cases in seven days rather than 14 days. So it’s going to be a quicker downtrend also,” he says. “So we could see quite a bit more bumps but it’s not going to be…the average will be very similar. The spike will go up a little quicker and it’ll come down quicker.” 

Warren says while the city is not currently tracking non-resident data on the local dashboard, those numbers do count toward Sitka’s case rate that determines the community alert level. 

KCAW reached out to the Department of Health and Social Services for clarification on why the data reporting changed. In a email, Communications Manager Elizabeth Manning said it’s a capacity issue. In most communities, state public health nurses have been working closely with community EOCs to provide up-to-date data. But due to the recent surge in cases statewide, the public health nurses are spread thin. DHSS has directed its nursing staff to focus on vaccination efforts, contact tracing, and other COVID response work. Manning wrote that public health nurses still work with community EOCs to provide data as they are able to, but this assistance may be limited given increasing demands on staff due to the surge in cases.

Read an email from Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, explaining the changes to community leaders around the state

But the lack of individual case data isn’t the only change to Sitka’s COVID dashboard. When the city’s dashboard changed on September 1, the total number of resident cases dropped by around 60 cases, re-aligning with the numbers reported on the state’s website.

The state’s case count has been lower than what Sitka was reporting for over a year. Over the course of the pandemic, the discrepancies between state and local COVID numbers have been attributed to reporting lags. Manning says it’s unclear why Sitka’s local case count differed from the states, but it’s not that unusual. She says the state’s reporting lag may still be a factor, along with permanent residency status of some of Sitka’s cases, and how cases reported by SEARHC were folded into the city’s COVID dashboard. Manning says the state’s numbers have remained consistent throughout the pandemic and haven’t been subject to any dramatic changes, and the state’s tracking aligns with national “best practices.”

Warren says he was unaware of the discrepancy between the state’s numbers and the city’s before they were reconciled on September 1, and says he’ll investigate the discrepancy. 

“We really do not want to hide numbers,” Warren says. “The EOC had said we want to show as much transparency as possible, we would like to have as much conversation with the community as we can. And that was kind of the whole crux for the dashboard was so that it was one easy place where everybody could go to get the same information…We definitely want the information to be as accurate as possible.” 

One data trend Warren hopes will continue? Sitka’s decreasing COVID case rate– while cases continue to surge across the state, Sitka has been reporting fewer numbers over the last couple of weeks (as of September 10). The community will remain in high alert until health officials report fewer than 9 cases over a 7 day period.