Editorial: Indiana should share more data to help Hoosiers fight COVID-19

Reputable news organizations generally favor making information public, not keeping it under wraps. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we think the state should share more of what it knows about where COVID-19 cases in Indiana are coming from.

As IBJ’s John Russell reported last week, the state, for reasons that are unclear, isn’t pulling back the curtain on all its COVID data, even as case numbers grow.

New COVID cases in Indiana have risen from around 350 per day in late June to more than 3,000 a day in early November, an alarming increase that puts Hoosiers and the state’s economy at risk. But the public isn’t privy to enough detail on where those cases are coming from.

The state reports county-level case numbers and identifies schools and long-term-care facilities that have had outbreaks, but it does not share cases by ZIP code nor identify categories of businesses where the virus is being transmitted.

It’s not as if the information doesn’t exist. Through a private contractor, the state employs about 1,200 contact tracers who spend their days calling people who have tested positive to find out where they’ve been and whom they’ve been in contact with. If those efforts fail, county-level tracers get involved, sometimes even showing up in person to learn more about each case.

The Indiana State Department of Health shares the resulting data with local health officials (and in some cases helps them investigate sites where transmission of the virus is thought to have occurred), but that’s where the sharing ends.

The state health department said it doesn’t release data by ZIP code or business category because “it is often unstable.” Taking that response at face value, it’s fair to ask why the information is unstable. If other states are producing useful information and sharing it, why can’t Indiana? Is the state enlisting the help of Indiana businesses with artificial intelligence capabilities? Indiana is home base to a robust collection of life sciences companies. It’s hard to believe we don’t have the expertise here to figure this out.

Indiana isn’t alone in playing its cards close to the vest. Only 17 states share data online about the origins of their COVID cases. Some, such as Louisiana, break down new cases by general categories—such as bars, gyms, churches and restaurants—so the public can see where transmission is occurring and decide for themselves how to stay safe.

In Indiana, public disclosure of information has been a struggle from the start of the pandemic. The first battle was over disclosure of case numbers and deaths at long-term-care facilities. The state didn’t make public what it knew until late July, and then only after pressure from AARP, the media and some state lawmakers.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and his coronavirus team continue to encourage mask-wearing, and they implore Hoosiers to “be safe.” But being safe is easier when you have access to the information you need.

Until an effective vaccine is readily available to the general public, information is our only defense against the virus. It’s our only shot at returning to something resembling the economy and society we had eight months ago.•

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