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Brazilian health officials have big data gaps between the Omicron version and the rise in COVID brought on by the flu, with public health researcher Marcelo Gomes telling the Associated Press, “We are blind.”

Researchers say data from Brazil’s health ministry is incomplete and difficult to access. Municipalities and states have been reporting issues uploading information on ministry platforms and web pages available to the public have often been closed. Health ministry officials are trying to recover from the hacker attacks on its system between December 10 and December 13.

Gomes of Fiocruz, a leading government research institute, told AP That “you need the landscape of an entire municipality, an entire state, to be able to adequately identify the situation.”

Fiocruz relies on the database of the Ministry of Health to use the Infogripe bulletin to track acute respiratory illness in Brazil.

Press offices of health secretaries of nine states, including Sao Paulo, told AP They are still having trouble transmitting data to the federal government.

“Access to the system has been normalized, but it is still possible to see that data is affected by a hacker attack,” wrote the National Council of Health Secretariats AP in an emailed statement.

While the cases of COVID are also increasing, there are also outbreaks of influenza that have similar symptoms. This has led to confusion among people, forming lines at pharmacies for tests and long waits at health clinics.

Health ministry officials are trying to recover from the hacker attacks on its system between December 10 and December 13. In this photo, a woman takes a COVID swab test at an urban bus station in the Brazilian city of Brasilia in January. 7, 2022.
Sergio Lima / AFP via Getty Images

While the health ministry 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 recorded 94,540 positive tests in the same period in its network alone – a 33 per cent jump. . last week.

It said cases were rising particularly rapidly in the larger states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where pharmacy-confirmed cases of COVID-19 increased by nearly 50 percent over the same period.

Diagnostics America, a large private diagnostics company, told the AP it was seeing a sharp increase in the percentage of positive versus negative tests – often a sign that the virus is becoming more widespread. It said the positivity rate jumped to 40 per cent on January 5, from around 19 per cent on December 29.

Despite the increase in cases, so far no state has reported its hospital system to be overly cumbersome. Some have seen significant increases in hospitalization rates, such as Minas Gerais, Piauí and Amazonas. Rio de Janeiro’s rate has barely budged from its lowest level since the pandemic began.

Federal police are investigating the hack of the health ministry’s system and the ministry told the AP that it has already restored its system.

Digital law expert Luiza Leite said the data breach by the health ministry required the government to back up all its information, reintroduce it to the system and then carry out a series of vulnerability tests against further hacking. is – even new data was being inserted.

“The simple fact that an attack has occurred shows the lack of a well-structured information security policy,” she said.

Health researchers were already critical of the country’s data collection and reporting during the pandemic. “In addition to underreporting, the absence of testing, and constructive accounting, we now lack transparency,” said Miguel Lago, executive director of the Institute for Health Policy Studies, which advises Brazilian public health officials.

“Data are important for public policy planning, but they are fundamental in health, even more so in the context of pandemics,” he said.

Fiocruz researcher Gomes said the complete 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 behaviour,” Gomes said. He said the most recent cases in the sequencing data he reviewed are from the Omicron variant, but cautioned that laboratory samples are not necessarily representative of the general public.

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

Despite the absence of reliable data to guide decisions, many state and city officials have again restricted activities in hopes of limiting broadcasting, including the cancellation of street parties for upcoming Carnival celebrations. .

Brazil also faced a blackout of official COVID data in June 2020, when the government took the information offline after President Jair Bolsonaro, who consistently downplayed the severity of the disease, complained that the figures were “not representative.” The Supreme Court soon ordered the pages to be restored.

At that time, the coronavirus had claimed the lives of around 34,000 people. As of this week, health ministry figures show nearly 620,000 COVID-19 deaths – the world’s second highest total.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.