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How Virginia Juked Its COVID-19 Data

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  • How Virginia Juked Its COVID-19 Data

    The state is combining results from viral and antibody tests in the same statistic. This threatens to confound America’s understanding of the pandemic.

    Updated at 6:13 p.m. ET on May 14, 2020.

    The United States’ ability to test for the novel coronavirus finally seems to be improving. As recently as late April, the country rarely reported more than 150,000 new test results each day. The U.S. now routinely claims to conduct more than 300,000 tests a day, according to state-level data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic.

    But these rosy numbers may conceal a problem: A lack of federal guidelines has created huge variation in how states are reporting their COVID-19 data and in what kind of data they provide to the public.

    These gaps can be used for political advantage. In at least one state, Virginia, senior officials are blending the results of two different types of coronavirus test in order to report a more favorable result to the public. This harms the integrity of the data they use to make decisions, reassure residents, and justify reopening their economy.

    Other differences make it hard to track the pandemic. In at least three other states, officials have lumped together probable and confirmed COVID-19 deaths; most don’t specify how they’re counting deaths. While most states report the number of people who have been tested for the coronavirus, six states say they track the number of samples that have been tested—and California and New Jersey switched methods in the past few weeks. Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, and New York do not report the racial or ethnic breakdown of coronavirus cases.* Even more states fail to report the racial breakdown of deaths. It is still impossible to know, for example, how many black people have died of COVID-19, though the data that do exist suggest that black people are dying at much higher levels than other groups.
    There are many ways that the lack of data has complicated the outbreak. Until May 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not reported state-level testing data, leaving efforts such as our COVID Tracking Project to fill that gap. The lack of reliable national testing data has made it difficult for modelers, policy analysts, and others to understand the true scope of the outbreak. Data about hospitalizations have been even harder to understand. Because the states report hospitalization counts in fundamentally different ways, there is no way to calculate the number of people who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S.

    Many pandemic response efforts assumed clean, standard, accessible data would exist, but they do not. That said, Virginia’s decision to mix the results of two different kinds of tests marks a new low in data standards.

    The state is reporting viral tests and antibody tests in the same figure, even though the two types of test answer different questions about the pandemic and reveal different types of information. By combining these two types of test, the state is able to portray itself as having a more robust infrastructure for tracking and containing the coronavirus than it actually does. It can represent gains in testing that do not exist in reality, says Ashish Jha, the K. T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard.
    “It is terrible. It messes up everything,” Jha told us. He said that combining the test results, as Virginia has done, produces information that is impossible to interpret.

    The state’s decision to combine the tests was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

    The two tests have little in common. Viral tests help officials do the basic blocking and tackling necessary to contain an outbreak. If someone tests positive on a viral test, they are still infectious, so they can be told to self-isolate in order to protect the susceptible population. Public-health workers can trace their contacts to find others who may be infected with the coronavirus but who are not yet experiencing symptoms. Viral tests can also be used to monitor people who work in high-risk environments—such as a meatpacking plant—to diagnose a contagious person before they spread the disease.

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