State stops publishing data on breakthrough infections

July 26, 2022:- To celebrate the notion of open government, in the month of March we have “sunshine week.” March has come and gone. We are in July and, weather notwithstanding, it is most definitely not sunshine week.

As of mid-July the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is no longer publishing the number of COVID-19 breakthrough cases, i.e. people who got the shot and then caught the disease. The number of such cases has been rising steadily. At the beginning of July that number was 617,337, which is 11.4% of the population the State classifies as fully vaccinated, up from 8.4% in February.

Keeping track of the number of reported COVID-19 cases among people who have had the jab helps all of us gauge the efficacy of the products and to make informed choices about whether to keep getting injected with them. But making informed decisions just became harder; the department’s site now states:

https://www.mass.gov/info-details/massachusetts-covid-19-vaccination-data-and-updates#weekly-report—covid-19-cases-in-vaccinated-individuals-

Yes, the “data on vaccine breakthrough cases in Massachusetts are no longer being updated.” The department does not say why.

Perhaps the data were becoming just too embarrassing. After all, the No Jab, No Job policy in Massachusetts that forced many State employees out of work rested on the claim that receiving the products would reduce the spread of COVID-19. You may remember Rochelle Walensky assuring us that the data (“real world data,” as she put it) show that “vaccinated people do not carry the virus and don’t get sick.”

https://youtu.be/uKf8dVxOy0s

One of the facts that undermines that claim is the increasing number of vaccinated people who who do carry the virus and do get sick.

Undercounting

The most recent figures from the Massachusetts Department Health show that of the Massachusetts residents classified as “fully vaccinated” at least 11.4 % have caught COVID-19.

  • As of July 2, 2022 there were 5,408,359 fully vaccinated people and there were 617,337 cases in vaccinated people
  • 10,121 of those 617,337 cases resulted in hospitalization and 3,213 cases resulted in death based on information reported to date

The department classifies as “fully vaccinated” people who reported testing positive for COVID-19 more than 14 days after receiving their final dose.  Below the figures, the department includes this note about undercounting both of cases and hospitalizations:

Identification of cases in vaccinated people relies on matching data between the system of record for cases and vaccinations. The number of cases in vaccinated people may be undercounted due to discrepancies in the names and dates of birth of individuals, resulting in an inability to match records across systems. Hospitalization data is likely also undercounted as identification and reporting of hospitalized cases relies on that information being obtainable by case investigators through patient interview.

This note about undercounting is important, but it leaves out something equally important.  It has been clear since soon after the outbreak that a large proportion of people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic.  Approximately 25-45% of people who are infected with COVID-19 show no symptoms at all, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaking on Good Morning America on June 10, 2020.  

For most people who display some symptoms, those symptoms are mild (e.g. sore throat, slight cough, and runny nose) and do not require a visit to a healthcare provider. If a person with COVID-19 does not report the infection to a healthcare provider, nobody enters the case into a healthcare provider’s database, and it does not appear in the department’s figures.            

Accordingly, the case count of 617,337 does not include people who are fully vaccinated and then contract COVID-19 but do not report the fact to a healthcare provider. So the number 617,337 (11.4% of the fully vaccinated population) is an undercount.

Reasons?

It is not clear whether the department is now (a) keeping track of the breakthrough cases but keeping the figures to itself or (b) just no longer counting them. Choosing not to publish the data is one thing, but choosing not to even collect it would be something else. It is hard to say which would be worse.

In either case, why is State government keeping these cards so close to the vest rather than tipping its hand? This is not a game.

Photo by Amol Tyagi on Unsplas

If the public servants in the Department of Public Health have a legitimate reason for either not collating the data at all or collating it but not publishing it, that reason must be written down somewhere, e.g. a memorandum or at least an email. Using the Public Records Law, I will try to find out the State’s rationale for keeping this important information from the public.

If and when I can drag the relevant documents out into the sunshine, I will post them here.

P.S.

July 28, 2022:- Today I submitted a public records request to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health asking for the documents that reflect or embody the decision to stop publishing the data on breakthrough infections.

On the subject of breakthrough infections, here is Dr. Deborah Birx, former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, stating:

“I knew these vaccines were not going to protect against infection and I think we overplayed the vaccines.”

https://youtu.be/8AYqTgtIgLA

Sunshine Week

March 15, 2022:- It’s Sunshine Week, a time to promote open government. Who says so? The News Leaders Association.

People who refer to themselves as “News Leaders” make me suspicious, for reasons that I will not sidetrack myself by going into. So staying focused (my suspicions of the News Leadership notwithstanding) and because the concept of Sunshine Week appeals to me, I will mark the event by recounting what I learned from the response to one of my recent public records requests, more specifically the discovery that a particular record does not seem to exist.

Hate Crime Hotline

After the election of Donald Trump (R), Maura Healey (D), who is the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, issued a press release:

“Following reports of harassment and intimidation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants since Election Day, Attorney General Maura Healey today announced that her office has launched a new hotline for Massachusetts residents to report such incidents.”

At the time, I was reading about both (1) actual hate crimes, and (2) hate crime hoaxes, so the hotline caught my attention. I wondered what, if anything, would happen in response to calls that people made to the hotline and how, if at all, the Attorney General would measure the efficacy of the hotline. Whether public officials will bother to evaluate the effectiveness of a publicly-funded initiative (or even bother to think about how they would evaluate its effectiveness) is, indeed, one of the things that I wonder about.

Measuring Success

Hate crimes are heinous. So if you receive a report of one, I think you should look into it, especially if you are the Commonwealth’s top law-enforcement official and you have set up a hotline for people to call. You might also want to keep track of the complaints. This, I thought, is what Attorney General Healey will do because according to the press release:

The hotline will be managed by attorneys and staff in the AG’s Office. While not every incident will be appropriate for legal action, the AG’s Office will be tracking reports and appropriate matters may be referred to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau.

Based on that statement, it seemed reasonable to believe that the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) would be tracking reports and, perhaps, referring appropriate matters to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau.

One very good reason to keep track of reports and of how many you refer to law enforcement and what happens to the referral thereafter is this: Without that knowledge, you do not know whether the hotline works. Collating that information is essential to determining whether this particular policy — a hate crime hotline — has any effect on hate crimes.

If the hotline works, hallelujah. If it does not work, stop wasting those resources on a failed initiative and devote them instead to an initiative that is more likely to reduce hate crimes.

That, of course, assumes that the purpose of the hotline is to help reduce hate crimes as opposed to, say, conveying the message that the election of Donald Trump led to an increase in hate crimes.

Public Records Request

In January 2022, I submitted a public records request (the Massachusetts equivalent of a federal FOIA request) to the AGO asking for, among other things, the total number of calls received since the hotline’s inception. This, according to the AGO’s response is 5,929. I was surprised not so much by the total number as by how many were from other States (quite a few from California, in particular Los Angeles).

Another fact that I deem worthy of note is that 13 of the calls were from Amherst, where I live, so I have followed up with a public records request to the local police department to find out what, if anything, happened with these 13 hotline complaints.

In addition to the total number of calls, I asked for:

  • The number of complaints received via the hotline referred to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau, and
  • Investigations commenced as a result of calls to the hotline, and prosecutions and convictions arising therefrom.

Regarding these two items, the AGO answered:

[W]e do not track our cases in a manner in which we could identify responsive records without spending an undetermined, yet voluminous, amount of time. It would require that we search, both electronically and manually, through every electronic and paper record made or received by AGO staff in multiple Bureaus and Divisions and review all of the records so found for applicable exemptions and privileges.

What I learned from this statement is that the AGO does not have a clear idea of how many hotline complaints were referred to local law enforcement or how many hotline calls resulted in investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. To find out, the folks at the AGO would have to really, really look into it, which would take an “undetermined, yet voluminous, amount of time.”

This matters. The AGO urged “any Massachusetts resident who has witnessed or experienced bias-motivated threats, harassment or violence” to call the hotline. And many Massachusetts residents did, along with residents of many other places (including more than one might have expected from LA for some reason). There have been almost 6,000 hotline calls logged over the last 5 years or so.

So what happened to those complaints? How many did the AGO refer to local law enforcement, how many were investigated, and how many led to convictions? The AGO has not collated all that information.

This is why public records requests are useful. With them, we can learn not only what records our public officials make, but also what sort of records our public officials do not consider it worth making.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash