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ColoradoSPH Launches a Rocky Mountain COVID Data Dashboard to Help Public Health Officials Across the Rocky Mountain West

The COVID-19 public health emergency may have ended, but public health leaders still need to be able to track data trends to prepare for the fall

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In May 2023, a public health emergency response spurred by the 3-year COVID-19 pandemic, came to an end in the United States. With that ending, many data feeds and indicators critical to COVID-19 planning and response also came to a halt. Many questions remain as communities across the nation settle into a longer-term relationship with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes. As the COVID pandemic made clear, public health officials need to be equipped with the best available information to optimize public health operations both now and in the future. To answer this call, researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health created and launched the Rocky Mountain COVID Data dashboard.

“So much changed with COVID. But even in 2023, COVID remains a deadly disease, one that is far more lethal than influenza,” said Beth Carlton, PhD, associate professor of environmental and occupational health and member of the COVID-19 Modeling Group and Rocky Mountain COVID Data Group. “Public health leaders need to be able to track COVID trends so they can prepare for the months ahead. So much of the underlying data have changed and numbers will continue to change as health insurers pull back coverage for at-home and in-clinic testing. We focused our dashboard on providing public health leaders with three key pieces of information: COVID hospitalizations, vaccination trends and emerging variants. This information is important for responding to the COVID of 2023, in a time where testing and case data are more scarce than ever.”

To address this need for reliable data, many of the same Colorado School of Public Health researchers who were involved with the COVID-19 Modeling Group created a data dashboard for public health officials in the six-state Rocky Mountain West region (including Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming).

The smaller ColoradoSPH team helped create the Rocky Mountain COVID Data dashboard to provide interactive data visualizations on:

  • COVID-19 hospitalizations at the state level and for three or four smaller regions in each state;
  • ·vaccinations including the percentage of up-to-date vaccinations by state and age group, and historical vaccine uptake trends for the six states in the region;
  • and information on past and present SARS-CoV-2 variants in the Rocky Mountain West.

The team will be updating this website weekly through December 2023.

“Our aim is to share the Rocky Mountain COVID Data project with state, local, and tribal public health leaders in the Rocky Mountain West. We have created easy-to-us data visualizations to supplement data feeds that have either stopped or changed dramatically ahead of the fall and winter season,” added Carlton. “We provide COVID hospitalizations at a unique level that is smaller than the state, but larger than the county, allowing health officials, both urban and rural, to see trends in hospitalizations in their jurisdictions and across the Rocky Mountain West.”

Before creating the dashboard, the team interviewed public health leaders across the Rocky Mountain West states in the summer of 2022 to better understand their needs in the COVID-19 sphere.

“In the summer of 2022, it became clear to us that the pandemic was changing. The public health leaders we interviewed described their shifting priorities these. They wanted to know how COVID-19 would impact hospital staffing needs. They wanted to be able to identify potential hotspots (and coldspots, where severe disease is rare). They wanted to know where there were vaccination gaps in the past and where vaccination campaigns could focus their efforts in the future. They wanted to know how bad a new variant would have to be to cause a major increase of COVID-19 in their communities,” said Emma Wu, senior professional research assistant. “We designed our dashboard to address these priorities.  We want to empower public health leaders in this part of the country by equipping them with as much high-quality data as possible to help them answer questions and make the most informed decisions as the fall and winter 2023 respiratory season approaches.”

While the CDC and some other organizations do maintain dashboards that provide COVID-19 surveillance indicators—some at the state level and some at the county level—interpreting hospitalization data at the state level may be too coarse for regional public health leaders, and in rural areas, counties are small, and hospitalization data at the county level can be unstable.

“We went through a rigorous process of partitioning these states into their respective regions, taking into account mobility patterns and existing public health planning regions to consolidate data at a sub-state level,” added Wu.

The researchers point out that the Rocky Mountain West states each have a significant amount of heterogeneity in terms of their population densities, demographics, and dynamics across the state, many boasting both sparsely populated rural expanses and dense urban clusters.

“Data at the county level for extremely rural counties is often noisy and not interpretable, so by aggregating certain counties together to form regions, the data begin to tell a story and public health officials in these counties can better make sense of that data and use it to inform and optimize COVID-19 planning and response in their jurisdictions,” said Wu.