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Lack of data hampers Brazil’s tracking of virus spread | WGN 720 radio

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BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) – As the omicron variant skyrockets COVID-19 cases across much of the world, one of the countries most devastated by the disease since the start of the pandemic struggles to monitor new cases, deaths and hospitalizations.

Brazilian health ministry officials are still trying to recover from hacker attacks on its system between December 10 and 13, and researchers say the data remains incomplete and often difficult to access. States and municipalities report problems uploading information to ministry platforms, and publicly visible web pages have often been taken offline.

The information shortage couldn’t have come at a worse time: COVID-19 cases appear to be on the rise with a particularly strong flu outbreak showing similar symptoms. The resulting confusion caused queues at pharmacies looking for tests and reports of long waits at health clinics.

Marcelo Gomes, a public health researcher at Fiocruz, a major state-run research institution, relies on the Ministry of Health’s database to coordinate Infogripe bulletins that track serious respiratory illnesses in the country.

“We are blind,” Gomes told The Associated Press. “You need a scenario of an entire municipality, an entire state, to be able to identify the situation adequately. “

While the Department of Health reported 53,292 cases of COVID-19 in the week of December 27 to January 2, a national pharmacy association said its 8,500 branches alone had recorded 94,540 positive tests in its network. during the same period – a jump of 33% from the previous week. .

He said cases were growing particularly rapidly in the large states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where pharmacy-confirmed COVID-19 cases have increased by almost 50% over the same period.

A large private diagnostic company, Diagnosticos America, told the AP it was seeing a sharp increase in the percentage of positive tests compared to negative tests – often a sign the virus was spreading. He said the positivity rate rose to 40% on January 5, from around 19% on December 29.

Despite the increase in cases, no state has so far reported that its hospital system is overloaded. Some have seen hospitalization rates increase significantly, such as Minas Gerais, Piaui and Amazonas. Meanwhile, Rio de Janeiro’s rate has barely moved from its lowest level since the start of the pandemic.

The press offices of the health secretariats of nine states – including the huge Sao Paulo – told the AP they continued to have difficulty transmitting data to the federal government.

“Access to the systems has been standardized, but it is still possible to observe that the data is suffering the impacts of the hacker attack,” the National Board of Health Secretariats told the PA in a statement sent by email.

Federal police are investigating the hack into the Department of Health’s system, and the department told the AP that it has already restored its systems.

Digital law expert Luiza Leite said the data breach suffered by the Ministry of Health forced the government to back up all of its information, put it back into the system, and then run a series of vulnerability tests against everything. additional hacking, even as new data poured in.

“The mere fact that an attack took place demonstrates the absence of a well-structured information security policy,” she said.

Health researchers had previously criticized the country’s data collection and reporting during the pandemic. “In addition to underreporting, lack of testing and creative accounting, we now have this lack of transparency,” said Miguel Lago, executive director of the Institute for Health Policy Studies, which advises Brazilian public health officials.

“Data is important for public policy planning, but in health it is fundamental, even more so in the context of a pandemic,” he said.

Gomes, the Fiocruz researcher, said more comprehensive information would have helped people make decisions about travel and gatherings during the Christmas and New Year holidays.

“The transmission of the virus depends on our individual and collective behavior,” Gomes said. He added that the sequencing data he looked at revealed that the most recent cases were of the omicron variant, but cautioned that lab samples are not necessarily representative of the general public.

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

Even in the absence of reliable data to guide decisions, many state and city officials decided to restrict activities again in hopes of limiting transmission, including canceling street parties for children. next carnival celebrations.

Brazil also suffered a blackout from official COVID data in June 2020, when the government took information offline after President Jair Bolsonaro, who has consistently downplayed the severity of the disease, complained that the numbers were “not representative”. The Supreme Court quickly ordered the restoration of the pages.

At that time, the coronavirus had claimed about 34,000 victims. As of this week, data from the Ministry of Health shows nearly 620,000 deaths from COVID-19, the second global total.