David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

We’re About to Lose Track of the Pandemic

Again.

As the Omicron variant sprints to dominance across the United States, the country’s ability to track the resulting infections is about to evaporate. There are multiple reasons for this. The first is that the United States can’t do enough tests. Where cases are rising quickly, demand has already outstripped testing capacity, leaving people standing in long lines, many in bad weather. CDC rules specify that the only way a COVID-19 infection gets counted as a confirmed case is if it’s identified via PCR test or genomic sequencingBooked-up testing sites and clogged test-processing labs—and the necessary shift toward rapid antigen tests, which can’t officially confirm a case even when their results are reported to public-health authorities—mean that many infections simply won’t get counted.

But even where tests are being performed and processed, Americans are about to lose their ability to see the results, thanks to the way holidays interact with COVID testing and data reporting. On and around major holidays, thousands of people whose labor makes testing and data-reporting pipelines function go home. As a result, testing slows, and reporting through the various levels of public-health agencies tanks, along with the last-mile work of getting the data into public view. This effect produces the illusion that cases are dropping, or are dropping faster than they are—and tragically, this false decline in the numbers comes just as the risk of transmission increases, because holidays also involve a rise in large get-togethers with friends and family.

[Read: A guide to mixed-vaccination-status holidays]

Later, when people return to work and crunch through testing and data backlogs, the data will recover (though only to a limited degree; lots of people who couldn’t get a test because of shortages and holiday slowdowns simply won’t ever get one). The sudden arrival of the backlogged data will in turn produce a deceptively sharp spike that looks like an even more sudden increase in cases. With two major holidays in a row, the artificial drops and spikes produced by reporting delays can run together, creating a long period of confused data. Last year the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic found that after the twin disruptions of Christmas and New Year’s Day, holiday data distortions extended for weeks into the new year.

Abundant at-home rapid tests could have helped with the testing crisis, at least for people trying to determine whether the cold they have is COVID and they should stay home from a family gathering. But getting a rapid test is now nearly impossible in many areas. This is because the U.S. government has never taken testing seriously enough to produce and distribute sufficient tests to handle the pandemic waves that keep coming. Moreover, the Biden administration’s promised 500 million at-home tests won’t arrive in time for the holidays, and the intended volume is far too low to address the country’s testing demand.

The result of these cascading testing and data problems is that just as Omicron transmission really takes off in the United States, the large-scale movement of the pandemic is becoming impossible to discern, while at the scale of the individual, millions of people will be unable to know whether they have COVID. Case numbers will be artificially reduced, along with testing counts. And, at the same time, many people will be unable to get the rapid tests required to tell whether they’re likely to be infectious. Just about the only numbers that might be reliable throughout the holiday disruptions and testing collapse are those in the hospital-utilization data set from the Department of Health and Human Services, which powers visual tools such as The New York Times’ extensive county-level hospitalization maps and trend charts. Of course, hospitalization numbers tend to trail case numbers because people take time to become seriously ill. Far from being an early-warning system, rising hospitalization numbers are a record of things—lives, outbreaks, and attempts at public-health interventions—that have already gone badly wrong.

As the country heads into its second pandemic winter in the teeth of a ferociously quick variant, the safest assumption is that Omicron is going to do here what it’s been doing elsewhere. Infections are going to spike, whether U.S. institutions can track them or not. Lots of people are going to get sick. And until the holidays and the testing crunch are behind us, no one will know what’s really happened.

[Read: Omicron’s best- and worst-case scenarios]

In this information vacuum, some of us will tend toward caution and others toward risk. By the time Americans find out the results of our collective actions, the country will have weeks of new cases—an unknown proportion of which will turn into hospitalizations and deaths—baked in. In the meantime, the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker Weekly Review has wished us all a safe and happy holiday and gone on break until January 7, 2022.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.