BYU community not happy with changes in university’s COVID reporting

Students sit in the Wilkinson Student Center on Aug. 31 — the first day of BYU’s Fall Semester. Since then the university has moved from reporting COVID cases every day to once a week. (Preston Crawley)

Members of the BYU community came out on social media to voice their displeasure following BYU’s decision to move from daily to once-a-week reporting of COVID cases.

The change comes at a time when both Utah County and BYU cases are skyrocketing and the county’s infection rate is the highest in the state. BYU reported 218 active cases and 258 total cases on Friday, Sept. 11.

Following BYU’s decision to move to weekly reports, the university also announced it was rolling out a new COVID dashboard that shows the total number of cases as well as how many are active and how many are no longer in isolation. The dashboard also has weekly totals and daily averages for each week.

But professors, students and alumni were not impressed with the dashboard. Instead, various individuals questioned the motivation behind BYU’s decision, with theories ranging from more mild ideas like a need to decrease any anxiety that could come from viewing daily reports to suggestions that BYU was trying to hide case numbers or save face.

“Please change this back to daily. Transparency and rapid reporting are important for building trust and helping people to be more aware of the risks they are facing,” BYU computer science professor Daniel Zappala said in a tweet.

A user who identified herself as a wife of a BYU professor agreed. “This is a step back in transparency. As a Provo resident and a spouse to a BYU professor, the daily count reporting helped me trust in the administration’s handling of classes being held in person. This change makes me wonder what BYU’s motives are,” @Kathrynmads tweeted.

But BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said there is no truth to these claims. Instead, the change in reporting frequency allows the university to “provide a more accurate picture which takes into consideration daily case counts that may be high or low.”

She added that BYU’s contact tracing team continues to receive and manage positive reports each day and BYU’s new form of reporting is consistent with other higher education institutions in Utah.

BYU sociology professor Kevin Shafer hopes BYU will do more than surrounding schools because “that’s what BYU has traditionally done and that’s what BYU should continue to do.”

“In the midst of this pandemic, we need to communicate as openly and honestly about these things as possible,” he said in a phone interview with The Daily Universe. “I think more information is better. … People can make more informed and better decisions when they have more data available to them.”

He said while he understands why some people have tagged on nefarious motives to BYU’s decision, his reaction has just been confusion rather than seeking to explain the administration’s rationale.

“I think it would be helpful if the university explicitly explained why it made the change and not let individuals impute motivation upon the university,” Shafer said.

BYU English senior Calvin Burke also wants an explanation for the decision, which he feels is a lack of transparency. “I’m hopeful that this will be something that will be changed quickly because it seems inconsistent with our values at BYU — like fundamentally inconsistent.”

Like Shafer, Burke expressed a desire to see BYU be at the forefront of reporting techniques — a space currently occupied by Ohio State University. OSU’s dashboard is one of the most detailed COVID-19 dashboards of any university in the country. Its data ranges from daily updates, the number of tests administered, the state of its PPE supply and the percent of positive tests to the number of quarantine beds available at the school.

“At BYU we’ve always held ourselves to a higher standard than other universities and institutions of higher education,” Burke said. “I’d love to see a dashboard identical to or similar to, if not better than, the one at Ohio State.”

This is a possibility since, according to Jenkins, BYU is considering adding more information to its dashboard.

A recent Harvard study regarding best practices for COVID-19 data visualizations, stresses showing trends over time instead of just snapshots of daily infections. “Without the additional context, a daily toll means very little and can be wildly misinterpreted. A one-day number won’t help viewers understand the bigger picture,” writes Betsy Gardner.

That’s not to say daily reporting is necessarily a bad thing, the issue is more the broader context given with those daily reports. Our World in Data, which publishes data sets used by journalists and researches around the world, encourages daily reporting that is shown as a full-time series with all data points since an outbreak started and that isn’t limited to just the number of cases.

This is the approach the Utah Health Department has adopted: cases and testing numbers (and other data sets) are added daily to show an overall trend.

A screenshot taken from the Utah Health Department website shows daily case and testing numbers in the context of a full-time series. This is in line with best practices recommended by Our World in Data. (Utah Health Department)

Our World in Data also recommends providing detailed data — such as negative test results and breakdowns by age group or the testing process negative test results — as well as explanations to go along with the reported data.

BYU physics professor Kent Gee echoed calls for an expanded and more frequently updated COVID dashboard from BYU, saying as a scientist he’s always grateful for more data.

“I appreciate messages like ‘Compassion is contagious’ and visual reminders to maintain physical distancing, but I also think that we can use actual data to teach principles to help the campus community become more science- and math-literate while also encouraging modified behavior,” he told the Universe in an email. “Timely feedback regarding case counts is an essential part of this process.”

The rapidly evolving nature of this semester is also a factor in Gee’s desire for more frequent and extensive reporting from BYU. If cases continue to double every three days, BYU could potentially have 1500 cases by the end of next week.

“For all I know right now, we could transition to remote learning — without the campus community understanding why — before the next set of numbers are even released.  In that way, weekly updates are a travesty, in that they fail to deliver their intended value,” Gee said.

He hopes BYU will consider reporting hospitalizations, which is a factor BYU has previously stated is part of its holistic approach to monitoring whether to transition to online learning.

An online petition for “COVID transparency at BYU” has gained 170 signatures. History senior Abby Adams, one of the students behind the petition and a Twitter account raising awareness of the issue, said they wanted to hold BYU accountable for its COVID response.

Adams is taking both blended and in-person classes and said being able to see COVID updates once a week has made her less confident about going to campus.

“I think what’s making it worse is the fact that I do see how it’s affecting my classes,” she said, adding that last Thursday half of one of her blended classes was missing because of COVID cases. “And that’s another reason why I’ve been concerned because it’s obvious that things are happening and we know that cases are increasing and people are quarantining, but they’re not reflecting that.”

The main goal of the petition is to bring back daily reporting of COVID cases, but Adams said if that’s accomplished, she’d also like to turn to other COVID-related issues, specifically sharing stories of individuals’ experiences with COVID on campus. She hopes this will allow people to learn about what’s going on and eliminate the mindset that COIVD isn’t a big deal.

“I feel like BYU is reinforcing that dangerous mentality by not updating the cases, and so I feel like it’s probably something that is well worth their time,” Adams said.

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