The United States, which leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths, could be closer to the pandemic finish line if it had better data collection, said Wharton statistics and data science professor Abraham (Adi) Wyner.
Vaccination status, drug efficacy, patient health, and a raft of other information related to the pandemic is scattered across fragmented systems. The lack of clarity has led to confusion, along with growing frustration in the government’s response to a disease that has killed nearly 900,000 Americans since its detection here in January 2020.
“I sound a little bit like a broken record. I remember almost two years ago, being on your program and talking about this,” Wyner said during an interview with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast above.) “We don’t have the systems in place to accurately track the data that we need, mostly because we’re a disjunctive, noncentralized system… and that means we just don’t have an accurate count of the things we need to be counting.”
Wyner pointed to inconsistent information about the effectiveness of mask-wearing as an example. There’s no uniform messaging about masking at the national level, so states and cities have formed their own rules. Some locales have abandoned the practice, while others strictly enforce it.
“When you lack data, you lack the confidence to make policy statements and policy enactments that are evidence-based and will essentially hold up over time,” Wyner said.
“We just don’t have an accurate count of the things we need to be counting.” –Abraham (Adi) Wyner
The professor said U.S. data collection has failed on two particular fronts. The first is that there was no creation of a national representative panel to track a random sample of individuals over time. Monitoring the health of 10,000 to 40,000 people would have given experts a more accurate picture of what’s going on across the nation.
The U.S. also did not continue to conduct randomized controlled trials on the COVID-19 vaccines after the original testing. Randomized controlled trials are “the gold standard for understanding the medical outcomes of the vaccines,” he said. That’s why there’s so much mixed messaging about booster doses and vaccine protection.
Breakthrough cases of COVID were extremely rare in vaccinated people at first, but they have become far more common in the subsequent variants, including the highly contagious omicron variant.
“On one hand, there’s a claim — and I’m in that corner — that vaccines basically cannot prevent infection from the omicron variant,” Wyner said. “There are others, [like] New York State and the CDC, claiming that it’s about 80 percent effective. I don’t think that data is correct.”
For some people, the continuing disagreement over data has diminished their willingness to get vaccinated. That’s unfortunate because the vaccines have been “almost miraculous” in preventing serious illness and death, Wyner said.
“Take a moment and pause to think about that,” he said. “The original intent of the vaccine was to prevent infection, but it seems to not be doing that since the virus evolved. It does prevent serious illness and hospitalization and death at an extraordinary rate.”
Wyner said he believes there is a desire among all stakeholders to create a national system that can link together all the critical data, but it’s challenging in a country with such a highly decentralized system of government.
“We don’t have national ID cards, we don’t have things that connect people, and that’s part of the United States,” he said. “We have 50 distinct states, and they don’t always play well in our sandbox.”
Adi Wyner is one of the hosts of Wharton Moneyball, a SiriusXM show that focuses on sports data. It airs Wednesdays at 8 a.m. EST on channel 132.