Denver's Neighborhood COVID Data Mess

Denver's Neighborhood COVID Data Mess
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For most of the COVID-19 pandemic, Denver has provided some of the most wide-ranging data related to the disease of any major U.S. city, including detailed breakdowns of cases, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations in all 78 official neighborhoods.

But the overwhelming majority of this information went offline in early autumn for supposed upgrades by a team working with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. Over three months later, most of the neighborhood-specific statistics are still inaccessible on Denver's COVID-19 website, even as the State of Colorado is experiencing the biggest surge of cases to date — one so large that at a gathering of public officials (including Mayor Michael Hancock) earlier this week, Kathy Howell, the chief nursing officer at the University of Colorado Hospital, predicted that January is "probably going to be the scariest month of the pandemic."

Right now, there's no information about neighborhood hospitalizations, deaths or vaccination percentages on the city's site, and the neighborhood case-rate map that was finally unveiled last month is less thorough than before, presenting figures that are around a month old. Currently, the numbers on the site cover the period between December 6 and 19, before infections fueled by the Omicron variant hit the city full force.

What's going on? DDPHE spokesperson Courtney Ronner, who responded to our inquiries about the missing data in November, offers an update.

"The dashboards are important for constituents and the public in helping to understand the COVID-19 status in Denver," she acknowledges. "We are still in the process of adding maps that show cumulative hospitalization and death numbers by neighborhood. Our team is still working to clean this data to ensure that what is uploaded and made publicly available is accurate. We are also working to add vaccination rate maps to our vaccine dashboards."

However, she notes: "There are parts of the Public Health Institute at Denver Health (PHIDH) dashboards that won’t be coming back, such as recent death and recent hospitalization rates by neighborhood. These were short-term features of PHIDH dashboards, and there is less data in those short time frames, which results in large amounts of data suppression at the neighborhood level because of privacy policies, which is not informative for the public."

According to Ronner, "A lot of the delay focuses around resources and the current need to manually clean data. We have thousands and thousands of data points dating back to the beginning of the pandemic."

For example: "When looking at the vaccination maps, PHIDH used a different address geocoding system than DDPHE that automatically cleaned and fixed addresses that were incomplete or unverified. Many of the addresses entered into the state system need additional verification, and the mapping software is not able to automatically correct as many faulty addresses as PHIDH’s system did. We are working to procure additional address cleaning services, but it is important to recognize that we are still able to look at overall geographic patterns to see what neighborhoods have higher/lower vaccination rates. So we are still able to determine where we need to focus vaccine outreach efforts. However, until we have additional address cleaning software, the vaccination rate maps we have will look artificially low because of a large number of unverified addresses our software doesn’t recognize; this incomplete information would be unhelpful to share with the public."

Ronner stresses, "We are working as fast as humanly possible on adding to these existing dashboards, and at this time, I don’t have a firm completion date, as there are myriad factors impacting the ability for accurate, meaningful data to go be live on our website."

Including the very live spread of the Omicron variant.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts