Ministry of Health data blackout may be hiding record Covid-19 cases in Brazil

Analysis by Impulso Gov based on Facebook Information, made available on the Conass platform, shows a record percentage of users of the social network with symptoms of Covid-19 in the first week of January, which may indicate a record number of cases of the disease in Brazil, masked by official data blackout

Sao Paulo, January 11, 2022 – Since December 10, when a hacker attack hit the systems of the Ministry of Health, there is no accurate information about the real scenario of the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil. The data blackout may be hiding a record number of cases of the disease in the country.

This is what Impulso Gov, a non-profit organization that promotes the use of data and technology in the SUS, estimates. The analysis was based on data on symptoms and behaviors of Facebook users, compiled since the beginning of the pandemic in the panel “Social Networks and Covid-19 – Symptoms and Behaviors of Internet Users”, developed by Conass (National Council of Health Secretaries). ) in partnership with Vital Strategies. The panel's indicators have already shown excellent predictive power in the past, anticipating the number of official cases of the disease in the country by about 15 days.

A record percentage of Facebook users reported having symptoms of Covid-19 on January 7, 2022 (latest information made available by the platform). This indicator had already broken a record even before the end of the year, on December 18th. The new release of data reinforces the perception that the scenario has worsened since then.

It is possible that a part of this increase is a reflection of the influenza outbreak, given that some of the symptoms are similar to those of the coronavirus. The social network tries to differentiate the diseases in its research, but it is not possible to guarantee the accuracy of this diagnosis. It is also not possible to know the real situation of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, since the official platform of the Ministry of Health only has data on officially confirmed cases until December 21.

“Looking at the graph, the number of symptoms on Facebook has never been higher, even before the holidays, and hit a new record in the first week of January. The number of confirmed cases usually follows this trend with some delay”, explains the executive director of Impulso Gov, João Abreu. “Considering this scenario, it is likely that we will have a record number of Covid-19 cases now or in the next few days. The data blackout may be hiding this”, he adds.

With the percentage of symptomatic Facebook users reaching the highest level since the survey began in April 2020, and if the correlation between the survey and the actual data remains constant (see chart), we may be surpassing 70,000 daily cases — something that hasn't happened since June of last year — in an uptrend. 

“It would be hard to imagine a worse time for a data blackout. We urgently need to monitor the situation and we have not been able to. The big question now is how fast are hospitalizations and deaths going to rise. Even if it is not at a pace similar to the number of cases, since the majority of the population is completely immunized and the omicron variant has been shown to be less lethal, we may be facing a serious situation”, says Carlos Lula, State Secretary of Health of the State of São Paulo. Maranhão and president of Conass (National Council of Health Secretaries). 

According to data compiled by the press consortium, 68% of the Brazilian population (more than 144 million people) is fully immunized. But, even if the cases that do not lead to death in the same proportion as occurred in 2021, they can overload the health system with simultaneous care in large volume. 

The scenario reinforces that we will have to learn to better deal with Covid-19, just as we deal with other respiratory infectious diseases, such as the flu. “In cases of outbreaks, we will need to act quickly, with effective prevention measures to avoid escalating hospitalizations and overloading the health system. For this we need reliable and accurate data. Blackouts like the ones we are experiencing today are unacceptable”, concludes Abreu.

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