The blackout of information about COVID-19

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By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO, RICARDO RODRIGUES CIFERRI, MARIANA CORDEIRO DOS SANTOS & NUBIA HELENA OF MOLFETTA PICCIRILLI*

Data on COVID-19: 'blackout' and release of incorrect updates require explanation

the blackout

The official COVID-19 data page, https://covid.saude.gov.br/, as is common knowledge, became outdated from mid-December – until a few days ago, information on cases and deaths stopped on December 21, 2021.

Amidst the exponential advance in the number of new cases of COVID-19, derived from the high power of dissemination of the new Ômicron variant, the 'blackout' of data – never fully explained to the satisfaction – is, in itself, unacceptable. We were left without information that could lead to a more accurate understanding of the advance of the new wave of the pandemic; and, as a result, the ability to make reasoned decisions to face it was greatly reduced, either at the individual level or at the various spheres of government, with prejudice to the formulation and execution of adequate public policies and, consequently, with the potential worsening of the current health crisis.

The illustration below, taken on January 9, 2022, from the website https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases, shows that, on that date, there was a lack of official data on the number of cases of the pandemic in only seven countries in the world: Brazil, North Korea, Liberia, Central African Republic, Somalia, Tanzania and Turkmenistan.

 

Newly released updates by the federal government diverge from municipal records

With the return of disclosure of pandemic numbers on the official 'site', however, a situation is set up as or more worrying than the previous one: what is observed is a profound incompatibility between the data made available there and the constants of bulletins published daily by several Brazilian municipalities. There is no pretension here to exhaustively assess all possible existing discrepancies, but only to point out several examples in which these differences, due to their magnitude, cast doubt on the total number of confirmed cases disclosed by the federal government, and, thus, demand from the competent authorities not only due explanations, but prompt rectification.

It is worth mentioning that the accurate notification of the number of cases is crucial for the implementation of appropriate measures to contain the disease, since there is a direct relationship between the number of cases and the number of hospitalizations and deaths. Thus, the sizing of ward beds and ICUs can only be properly organized after obtaining reliable data on the number of cases. At the beginning of the pandemic, for every 100 cases, approximately 13 people were hospitalized and, on average, two died (with fluctuations, depending on geographic, socioeconomic and other factors). With the advancement of vaccination, this relationship has decreased significantly. Even so, world experience shows that the high degree of contagion of the Omicron variant has been increasing the occurrence of cases very significantly and, thus, despite the protective effect of vaccines, there is a potential risk of saturation of hospital infrastructure. The moment therefore requires attention and responsibility on the part of the health authorities.

It needs to be clear that we are not talking here about (surely substantial) underreporting existing as a result of deficiencies in the testing and registration process; we are referring to severe inconsistencies – exemplified below – between the updates that have just been published on the official website of the Ministry of Health and those contained in daily bulletins published by Brazilian municipalities.

 

In the state of Sao Paulo

Between January 18 and 19, 2022, according to official data from the Ministry of Health, the number of cases of COVID-19 registered in Brazil increased from 23.211.894 to 23.416.748; therefore, there were 204.854 new cases – a record reported by the media. Of this total, 69.223 occurred in Rio de Janeiro, where there have been approximately 1,5 million cases to date; and only 10.266 – according to the official account – took place in São Paulo, where the total so far has been around 4,5 million. That is, in the State of São Paulo, 3 times more cases have been confirmed than in the State of Rio de Janeiro; but the number of new cases in SP, from yesterday to today, was 1/7 of that verified in RJ.

Taking into account that the pandemic has spread quite unevenly over time, it is, in principle, possible for occasional fluctuations to occur between the relative numbers of cases; the magnitude of the above differential of 21 times is highly unlikely. And, in fact, we will show, through several examples, below, that the huge discrepancy pointed out corresponds to an equally huge mismatch between the numbers of cases already registered and confirmed in several municipalities in the State of São Paulo and those published by the Ministry of health; a mismatch that, due to its magnitude, discredits the official statistics, and suggests that the number of cases is much higher than what is being reported.

 

In the municipality of São Carlos

According to the website covid.saude.gov.br (Coronavirus Panel, CSV File, accessed on January 20, 2022), 'official communication vehicle on the epidemiological situation of COVID-19 in Brazil', the total number of cases of pandemic registered in São Carlos/SP, until January 03, 2022, was 27.448; and, until January 19, 2022, 27.571 – which means the occurrence of 123 cases in that period. On the other hand, according to the Municipality of São Carlos (Coronavirus Bulletins Nº 510 and Nº 522, transcribed below), there were 3.483 cases in the city between the same dates. A differential of 28,3 times.

 

We present below two graphs describing the situation of the pandemic in the city of São Carlos.

The first was obtained based on data taken from the Ministry of Health's website, and there a residual increase in the number of cases can be observed in recent weeks.

The second graph, based on the set of daily historical records of the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Municipality of São Carlos, according to publications made by the Municipality of São Carlos, shows an explosion of cases of the pandemic, reaching, on the 19th of January, almost double the previous highest peak.

 

In the municipalities of Araraquara, Sorocaba, Campinas and São Paulo

The divergences observed with regard to the municipality of São Carlos are repeated, to varying degrees, in other locations in the State of São Paulo.

The table below demonstrates these differences:

Sources[I]

 

Conclusion

The findings above point to large differences between the number of confirmed cases in various municipalities in São Paulo and those published after updating information on the Ministry of Health's website, exactly in the period corresponding to the 'blackout' that occurred last month.

In the given examples, the numbers of cases registered by the different city halls are much higher than those released by the federal government. In round figures: 13 times higher in São Paulo; 16 times in Sorocaba; 28 times in São Carlos and 300 times in Araraquara.

It is evident that, even taking into account only the numbers of the State of São Paulo, the correction of the pointed out discrepancies, if globalized nationally, will indicate a much more acute and worrying situation than the one that has been publicized.

Therefore, it is essential that the federal government explain with due transparency the reasons for the 'blackout' of data that occurred, and immediately correct all erroneous records in the update that has just been published.

Access to the truth of the facts, especially at an extremely difficult moment in national life and in the midst of a very acute health crisis, is a citizen right of the population and an inescapable obligation of the public authorities.

*Gil Vicente Reis de Figueiredo is a retired professor at the Department of Mathematics at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

*Ricardo Rodrigues Ciferri Professor at the Department of Computing at UFSCar.

*Mariana Cordeiro dos Santos is a master's student in computer science at UFSCar.

*Nubia Helena by Molfetta Piccirilli holds a degree in public policy management from USP.

 

Note


[I] With regard to data published by municipal governments, the sources are as follows:

For data from São Paulo: https://www.prefeitura.sp.gov.br/cidade/secretarias/saude/vigilancia_em_saude/index.php?p=295572

For Araraquara data: http://www.araraquara.sp.gov.br/coronavirus

For Sorocaba data: https://noticias.sorocaba.sp.gov.br/category/coronavirus/

With regard to data published by the Ministry of Health, the source is https://covid.saude.gov.br/

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