TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Health Department has announced that it will cease reporting active case numbers publicly every day, though it will still be tracking positive case numbers. The change will take effect on Jan. 31.

Active case figures will still be available, just not as regularly. The health department will update its familiar spreadsheet with those numbers weekly. Presumably, if another variant, or something else, causes a significant change in the pandemic (again) then the health department will change course, as it did when it announced it would no longer report daily positive test numbers before reversing that decision once cases picked back up.

The decision seems to stem from some of the deficiencies that have developed in the contact tracing process, and the inherent unreliability of the self-reporting system—which the proliferation of home tests has made a fairly crucial part of tracking positive cases.

“While our priorities in responding to the pandemic have transitioned recently, our commitment to monitoring the severity of disease and hospitalization in our community has not changed,” said Public Health Director Frank Kruppa. “Our daily data reports have given a snapshot to the community about the status of disease, but we recognize that the real-time accuracy of this data is decreasing due to the changes in guidance and our increased understanding of the disease. We acknowledge that with the increased availability and reliability of self-tests, the Health Department no longer receives notice of all positive test results. We encourage residents to continue using our self-test reporting portal, but many may choose to also use the State affirmation forms. The self-test number serves as a data point, but by no means captures the total positive cases in our community.”

It will undoubtedly be viewed as a distressing move to some, particularly those who were already nervous about the local health department’s previous step of shortening quarantine and isolation requirements, in accordance with new announcements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But it is not as if the health department hasn’t signaled this for weeks, if not longer. Dating back quite a while, Kruppa has said that active cases were no longer the health department’s primary concern or metric for the pandemic’s status.

Instead, he said the focus should shift to severity of illness among those who do become infected, viewed most clearly through the numbers of hospitalized patients with COVID-19. As of Jan. 28, that number was 17 people. There are 16 people currently in the ICU at Cayuga Medical Center (of 19 available beds, according to the state) though not necessarily because of COVID cases.

As for active cases, they have dropped precipitously over the last three weeks, from over 1,500 at one point to 266 on Jan. 28. Positive tests will be important to keep an eye on in the coming days as more college students return to Ithaca for the Spring semester.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com