Lack of data affects surveillance of COVID cases in Brazil

While the Omicron variant triggers cases of COVID-19 in much of the world, one of the countries most ravaged by the pandemic has difficulty tracking new cases, deaths and hospitalizations.

Brazilian health ministry officials have not yet fully recovered from attacks on their systems by hackers between December 10 and 13, so researchers say the data is incomplete and often accurate. hard access.

States and municipalities have trouble uploading their information to the ministry’s platform, and publicly accessible web pages are often down.

The lack of information could not have come at a worse time: Covid-19 cases are rising at the same time as flu outbreaks with similar symptoms. As a result of the confusion, people stand in long lines at pharmacies looking for tests, and the waits at health centers are extremely long.

Marcelo Gomes, a public health researcher at Fiocruz, a state research institute, relies on a ministry of health database to coordinate InfoGrip newsletters that track serious respiratory diseases in the country.

“We are blind,” Gomes told the Associated Press. “You need to observe an entire municipality, an entire state, to be able to properly identify the situation.”

Although the health ministry reported 53,292 cases of Covid-19 in the week of December 27 to January 2, a national pharmacies association said only its 8,500 branches registered 94,540 positive tests during the same period, compared to the previous week. 33% higher. ,

The association noted that cases are rising particularly rapidly in large states such as So Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where confirmed COVID-19 cases in pharmacies have increased by almost 50% over the same period.

Diagnostics America, a private diagnostic services company, told the AP that it is seeing a sharp increase in the percentage of positive tests versus negative tests, which is often a sign that the virus is spreading. The company noted that the positivity rate increased from 22% on December 30 to 43% on January 6.

Despite the rise in cases, no state has yet reported that its hospital system is saturated. Some, such as Minas Gerais, PiauĂ­ and Amazonas, have seen significant increases in hospitalization rates. Rio de Janeiro’s rate has barely budged from its lowest level since the pandemic began.

The press offices of the health ministries of nine states, including So Paulo, told the AP they continue to have difficulties transmitting information to the federal government.

“Access to the system has been normalized, but it is still possible to observe the results in the data after a hacker attack,” the National Council of Health Ministries told the AP in an e-mailed statement.

Federal police are investigating the hack in the health ministry system, which told the AP it has already restored its systems.

Digital law expert Luiza Leite pointed out that the data breach by the health ministry forced the government to back up all of its information, reintroduce it to the system, and then conduct multiple vulnerability tests against subsequent hacks, even though Only new data has arrived. ,

“The simple fact that the attack happened shows the lack of a well-structured policy to protect information,” he said.

Health researchers had already criticized the way the data was compiled and disseminated during the pandemic in the country. “Besides underreporting, the absence of evidence and constructive accounting, we now lack transparency,” said Miguel Lago, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Health Policies, which advises Brazilian public health officials.

“Data are important for public policy planning, but they are fundamental in health, even more so in the context of pandemics,” he said.

Gomes, a researcher at Fiocruz, said having more complete information would have helped people make decisions about travel and meetings during the Christmas and New Year holidays.

“The transmission of the virus depends on our individual and collective behaviour,” Gomes said. He also indicated that in the sequencing data he reviewed, he found that the most recent cases were of the Omicron variant, but he cautioned that laboratory samples are not representative of the general public.

As of Thursday, the ministry had identified 265 cases of Omicron and 520 more were under observation. The first death confirmed by the variant occurred this week.

Despite a lack of credible information to guide decisions, many state and municipal officials have moved to restrict activities again, including street parties on the occasion of the upcoming Carnival celebrations, in hopes of limiting the contagion. Huh.

Brazil also faced censorship of official information on Covid-19 in June 2020, when the government withdrew it from the internet after President Jair Bolsonaro, who insists on downplaying the severity of the disease, complained that The figures were “not representative.” Soon the Supreme Court ordered the pages to be restored.

At that time, the coronavirus had left about 34,000 victims. As of this week, Health Ministry figures show around 620 thousand deaths from Kovid-19 in the country, which is the second highest number in the world.