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Somesh Nigam, chief analytics and data officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, and Jeanie Donovan, policy director for the Louisiana Department of Health, are seen on the Blue Cross campus. The two entities are working together to gather and analyze COVID-19 data.

A partnership between the Louisiana Department of Health and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana since early March is yielding abundant data about COVID-19 cases, severity, location trends and more.

Analysts from both organizations continually review information such as the spread of the virus, hospitalization trends and underlying medical conditions of those who contract the virus.

Blue Cross and LDH are able to combine information from claims and other healthcare data for Blue Cross members and hospital admissions data for members of state Medicaid plans, representing two out of three Louisianians. Staff from both entities then input the data into a dashboard, powered by Blue Cross’ Pi platform, that is routinely updated.

“When you put the LDH data and our data together, it helps us fill in the gaps and see where the virus has spread, the rate of the spread, hospitalizations across the state and the impact of policies,” said Somesh Nigam, chief analytics and data officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana.

Blue Cross and LDH exchange data securely and protect people’s privacy through Business Associate and Data Use Agreements, which limit access to and use of the data.

Jeanie Donovan, the LDH policy director, said the dashboard helps medical officials monitor hospital capacity among facilities, parishes and regions, as well as the number of ICU beds and ventilators available.

“We are looking at incidence of the virus at the Census tract level to track the spread and movement to identify emerging hotspots,” Donovan said. “We’ve also worked closely together on a predictive modeling tool to map out potential scenarios based on policy interventions and mitigating factors. That helps us see what we might expect in the weeks and months to come.”

Nigam said one of the most striking parts of the dashboard is how data clearly shows the impact of measures such as closing schools, instituting a stay-at-home order and requiring masks in public.

“I think we are very fortunate in Louisiana that LDH and the state leadership have taken a data-driven approach to this,” he said. “We can see in our modeling the effects of each of these policies. You can see a policy change and see the results of that policy in the data.”

Nigam pointed out that many of these policies have roots in epidemiology literature that has been around for decades. Throughout history, doctors have combated viruses by requiring social distancing and face coverings. Those measures have held up over time as doctors learn more about how some viruses spread through microdroplets in the air.

“This is obviously a new disease and every day is a surprise,” he said. “But for me, it’s been both surprising and instructive to see how many lessons still apply.”

Donovan said one surprise was how effective this spring’s stay-at-home order was at reducing the spread of the virus.

“The impact of that was significantly greater than what we originally modeled,” she said. “We knew we could not stay in that situation long-term, so we are now modeling out the impact of masking. We know from early literature that masking is looking to be very effective.”

Early data in Louisiana show decreases in the number of people showing up with COVID-like symptoms in emergency rooms and COVID cases and a plateau in hospitalizations at the state level after the mask mandate went into effect. While too soon to know for sure, these fragile gains give state officials hope. 

Donovan added that officials have used the data to help allocate resources and determine where additional testing sites are needed.

“We’re able to get down to the neighborhood level,” she said. “That helps us see where to put additional health care resources, where we may need to surge hospital beds and what other measures we need to take and where. That’s a huge benefit.”

Although LDH and Blue Cross have worked together through the years, the data analysis marks their most significant partnership to date and has represented an “all hands on deck” approach, Nigam said. Now that the model is in place, Nigam said he can envision the partnership continuing not just for COVID-19, but to analyze data about other conditions such as the seasonal flu, diabetes, hypertension, cancer and more.

“This is definitely unprecedented,” he said. “I hope it sets a new standard for how health care can be managed in our state. This partnership is exemplary. This is not seen in any other state. We’ve had other Blue Cross organizations in other states contact us because they are trying to emulate what we are doing.”