Image for Lack of Data Shackles Issue Managers and Public Health Experts

Managing a critical issue without solid data is like trying to steer a sailboat without a rudder. That is exactly the dilemma facing political and public health officials trying to navigate a rational response to the COVID-19 pandemic without data from mass testing. Data-deprived decision-making is more common than many leaders would like to admit.

Clearly, what public health experts don’t know exceeds what they do know about the virus. For example, how deadly is COVID-19? Armchair virologists have theorized it isn’t any more lethal than influenza, despite fatality rates in places like Spain, New York City and Michigan that indicate it is much more deadly than the flu.

You can prove almost any theory or justify almost any action by pointing to highly variable data, especially without context. Take the case fatality rate (the number of deaths among people with confirmed cases of COVID-19), for example. Singapore’s case fatality rate is 0.2 percent, which is comparatively low to elsewhere, though still twice the mortality rate of seasonal flu. Contrast that to New York City where the case fatality rate is nearing 6 percent or Italy where the rate is 13 percent. The overall US case fatality rate has inched up to nearly 5 percent – and is still rising. So, what is the real mortality rate for COVID-19 and how would that influence social distancing and economic reopening considerations? We don’t know and can’t know without more testing.

Now a new data point has emerged – the test-positivity rate. According to the Tracking Project’s figures, roughly one in five people tested in the United States turn into confirmed COVID-19 cases, suggesting many more people are infected than show symptoms of the virus. The test-positivity rate is a data point used successfully to track diseases such as malaria. But it is not the same as “prevalence,” the measure of the true penetration of an infection. Without an accurate prevalence number, which only can be achieved through mass testing, it is tricky to estimate the real rate of mortality of COVID-19 – and perhaps get an early warning of a new wave of the virus.

The bottom line, Teena Chopra, an associate professor of medicine at Wayne State University’s infectious diseases division, told The Washington Post, “[We] need to do more testing. Without testing, public health experts are forced to live in an unknown world, and an unknown environment.”

Issue managers face the same conundrum when tasked with plotting a course of action without adequate information or reliable data. They are swimming blind in choppy waters. The current debate over when and how to reopen the US economy is a perfect example of a high-stakes decision based, at least for now,  on incomplete and even dubious data points.

Increased testing to learn more about the lethality and contagiousness of COVID-19 is no different than an environmental issue manager learning all possible about the composition and impact of his company’s water and air discharges. Or a project manager conducting due diligence on the potential safety hazards of newly introduced product and on ways to design away or mitigate those hazards.

Getting quality information is prized, but not always valued. Research can often be the sacrificial lamb on the budget block. Some leaders imagine they already know what they need to know, whether they do or not. Then there are those who believe the path forward is “obvious,” even when the path may be barely visible. Still others will claim there is no time to wait for research results, even as they stumble in data darkness to search for the right direction.

Even when there is inquiry, solid information can be sandbagged by poor quality research or half-baked testing. A key skill for issue managers is to be a good consumer of research. They should understand how to get the information they need and what kind or combination of research techniques can deliver it. They should know how to frame questions to avoid confirming preconceived thinking. And they must cultivate ways to look for answers beyond formal research, whether it’s talking to employees who interact directly with consumers or canvassing social media sites for trends, expressed needs or bright new ideas.

The lockdown to arrest the spread of COVID-19 will provide another false excuse for ignoring quality research – people stuck at home don’t want to talk about products or campaigns. In truth, now is a great time to conduct surveys and online focus groups because people are stuck home and longing to talk about something other than what’s for dinner. Savvy research professionals are capitalizing on this moment by trying new techniques such as live-feed focus groups and combining Zoom sessions with in-session polling. These techniques have limitations, but they show there is no need to spurn research outreach. In fact, this may be a golden moment to embrace research.

Data should not become a tyrannical master or an excuse for delayed action. However, the absence of critical data can be a sign of poor planning and lack of preparation. Anticipating disaster is an essential part of organizational leadership. Identifying possible crisis scenarios in advance gives an organization precious time to search out the information, data and resources they will need.

Avoid turning your sticky issue or tricky marketing challenge into a mortality by getting the information you need to make wise choices and build trust along the way. Trust has never been more important to success. Don’t rely on luck or your gut and risk the reputation you have – and the one you want to earn.