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COVID | THE LOCAL RESPONSE

Watch now: Macon County cuts daily COVID reports, seeks new messaging

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DECATUR — As Macon County sees its worst surge in COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, less day-to-day information is flowing to the community from the county health department on the virus' spread.

It comes after the Macon County Board of Health voted last month to stop the daily release of case numbers, deaths and other relevant information. 

Instead, the board directed the health department staff to release information on a weekly basis, change the type of data it provides and stop reporting the number of cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. 

“We’re getting inundated every single day around the clock with — everything in our world seems to revolve around COVID,” said Mark Scranton, the board of health vice president, during a Dec. 21 meeting.

The move stems from a concern voiced by Scranton and others about whether people are “tuning out” the information.

”People are just, they’re burned out. They’re tired of hearing about it,” he said, adding that the health department did not release daily reports about the local presence of the flu, diabetes or other illnesses. 

Board members directed the health department to add more information about the vaccination status of people who have contracted COVID-19. 

Scranton_Mark 08.12.20.JPG

Scranton 

The move coincided with a massive uptick in COVID-19 cases in Macon County, fueled by the delta and omicron variants.

In the week of Dec. 27 through Jan. 2, there were 960 new cases reported in Macon County. Fifty-four Macon County residents were reported in the hospital. 

Some of the same data is still available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health, but Macon County public health director Brandi Binkley acknowledged there would be a lag in those reports compared with the daily case numbers and deaths that the county had been reporting. 

Up until the board's action, the frequency of which to report COVID-19 data was the discretion of Binkley. For a period last year, the department was only doing weekly updates. But, they had been daily at the time the board took its vote. 

Asked whether officials in the department agreed with the board's decision, Binkley said, "I don't think I should answer that question specifically."

"What I will say is throughout the pandemic, as the administrator, I've obviously had to make a lot of decisions about what to communicate, how, when, all of that," Binkley said. "... We were reporting daily. At times we've been reporting only weekly. At the time of the board vote, we were reporting daily."

Some Decatur city officials expressed frustration with the board's decision at the city council meeting earlier this week, with Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe saying she "would prefer to have those numbers reported to us daily."

Scranton also mentioned the amount of staff time dedicated to putting out the release everyday and the optics surrounding it as reasons to halt it.

Public Health Administrator Brandi Binkley

Public Health Administrator Brandi Binkley is shown in April 2020. The Macon County health department has changed how COVID data is released. 

"I think it’s a waste of energy," he said. "I don’t think it’s a good way to operate from a PR standpoint and provide the public timely information."

But Binkley said "there have not been concerns brought to the board about that specifically."

"I will say that, of course, as the health department we've kept our board updated on workload throughout the pandemic, which has been significant for our team," Binkley said. 

Scranton was also critical of news organizations’ reporting of the data, expressing a hope that moving to weekly health department reports would lead to fewer news stories — but ones with more impact. 

“If the media decides to take a weekly report and talk about it for the next seven days, there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said, “but we can focus the message on, ‘This is what we’ve got in front of us, these are the other things that we’re bringing to your attention, by the way, this many cases were vaccinated, not vaccinated,’ people will start picking up on that.”

Scranton, reached Thursday afternoon, declined to comment beyond the points he made in December, referring other questions to board president Vivian Goodman. 

Goodman could not be immediately reached for comment. 

Macon County remains at a high risk in any surge scenario as its vaccination rate continues to lag that of the state's and other counties with medium-sized cities. 

As of Thursday, just 48.64% of county residents are fully vaccinated. 

"We're already not in a good place and there's only so much that we as health care professionals can do," Binkley said. "We can't force people to do things to keep themselves and others states or to try to help limit the spread of this. So it's a lot of asking the community again to please do everything that they can to help control this."

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