Panic and Why Tracking COVID-19 Cases per Day Is a Fools Errand

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One of the most popular “Panic” headlines on COVID-19 is a headline that usually reads something like: “COVID-19 Cases Exploding!” As I’ll show you, this is often due to increased testing and is a fool’s errand right now. So let’s dig in.

PANIC Awards

Bill Maher, a comedian, did a great piece on what he called the media’s “Panic Porn”:

Hence, I have decided to begin handing out weekly COVID PANIC awards when a COVID-19 media headline can’t be substantiated.

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Reporting on Cases-A Fool’s Errand

Before we get to this week’s Panic award, let’s discuss the problem with reporting on new cases. In a disease that has many asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases, the number of lab test positive cases you find will vary dramatically with testing. Meaning if you test more people, you will find more COVID-19 positives.

Testing Has Been Exploding

In a situation where the number of tests being performed is exploding, you can expect the number of cases to explode as well. For example, the graph below documents the explosion in the number of tests performed per million inhabitants in various countries:

For example, since the end of March, the US has quadrupled the number of tests being done. If you follow that number as I have, the number of tests per million here is increasing about 2,000 a day right now! Hence, any increase in cases you see reported needs to be offset by the increased testing. Hence looking at reported cases in this environment of exploding testing capability and believing that you’re seeing the result of viral community spread is ridiculous.

This Week’s COVID PANIC Award

This May 26th headline appeared on CNN:

Just as Covid-19 cases keep rising in 17 states, holiday revelers cram together without masks

This story discussed increasing cases in a number of states. As you know from above, quoting increased cases in an environment of increased testing is silly. However, I decided to check on two random states mentioned as having increased cases: California and Georgia. Why those two? Georgia has taken flack for reopening too early and California has gotten flack for staying closed too long. Plus they’re on the different sides of the country.

California

The report was that California was one of the states with increasing Coronavirus cases. However, look at this graph from the University of Washington IHME group:

If cases are up, they’re up a tiny bit, as you can see above. Tests are WAY up! Hence, the CNN report is not supported by the data. Verdict: COVID PANIC

Georgia

This is Georgia’s chart from IHME:

Maybe the scientists at IHME are missing something? Tests are up over last month, but cases are flat based on the IHME graph. That means that the number of positive cases in the community is likely declining. Here’s the graph from the Georgia Dept of Health website:

The cases off to the right are not yet confirmed by the state, but cases after 5/20 are way down. Given that the CNN report referred to cases being up during this time frame, the CNN report is not supported by the data. Verdict: COVID PANIC.

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What Should We Be Tracking?

As I have written in other posts, the metric that can be compared and tracked, as grim as it seems, is deaths per day. These lag infections by 2-3 weeks, but they give an accurate estimate of the actual density of the disease in any given area. In addition, this data doesn’t change with how many people you test.

The upshot? This week, CNN gets my COVID PANIC award. In an environment where the number of tests is going way up every day, following new case numbers like a stock ticker is not a good idea. On the media, I now have to check every headline I read against the actual facts. Most are not verifiable or are misstating or exaggerating the situation.

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