Letter to the Editor: Test results need more demographics information

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Tompkins County did really well with the first wave of coronavirus. We ramped up testing more rapidly than most New York counties and shut down well enough that we seem to have beaten the virus for now. However, the good news only lasts as long as the virus stays away, and we have thousands of people returning and being generally more active soon.

Cornell’s draft reactivation plans, published on the 22nd, call for intense testing of the Cornell community. If that happens, the Tompkins County Health Department’s reporting approach will drown under vast quantities of university tests. As surrounding residents watch college students return, we are going to need to have at least a sense of which results are students and which are in the surrounding communities.

Cornell and other institutions will also need data about how much to fear us. As Cornell’s reactivation report puts it on page 40:

"Students should be aware that the prevalence of asymptomatic, mildly symptomatic and pre-symptomatic positives is likely to be higher outside of the Cornell community where asymptomatic testing will not be the norm, and thus they must be extra careful not to expose themselves to possible infection."

Unless we know which test results came from Cornell, or places with similar approaches, and which didn’t, we’re going to have a very hard time telling what the incidence of infection really looks like. Massive numbers of negative results from Cornell’s proposed intensive testing may lull county residents, making it hard to see real issues outside of Cornell when they arise. This is already a danger today with intensively tested caregivers, who are generally more careful than the rest of us because of the nature of their jobs.

Tompkins County needs to update its reporting practices to include at least on-campus/off-campus, but ideally should include more information about cases. Surrounding counties already put Tompkins County’s reporting to shame.

Many counties, even small counties, provide information by town and information about places recently ill people visited. Steuben County explained how the disease was cutting through their county in clear press releases, without identifying sick people. Onondaga County provides an explicit “community spread” number.

Without trust, public health doesn’t work. If we’re going to open the campuses again, Tompkins County and its Health Department need to say more than “trust us.”  The county needs to trust us, the public, with information that lets us know what’s actually happening.

Simon St.Laurent

1259 Dryden Rd.

Ithaca, NY 14850

607-227-0858

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