COVID-19 Update: Pick Your Data to Support Your Narrative

COVID-19 data has been published today that can either calm you or alarm you, depending upon your inclination — or your support for or against Governor Ralph Northam’s economic lockdown measures.

On the positive side, the chart above, taken from Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association data, indicates that COVID-19 still is not straining the capacity of hospitals to treat the most severely afflicted patients. ICU and ventilator use is trending down. Virginia hospitals have 5,433 beds available and only 1,455 patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection. Surely, we can allow most hospitals to resume elective surgeries, put healthcare practitioners back to work, and help people with a variety of medical conditions.

On the more worrisome side, the seven-day trailing average of COVID-19 cases is still trending higher — at a subdued, arithmetic rate of increase, as can be seen below in John Butcher’s graph, but higher nonetheless.

If you like running around with your hair on fire, that’s that trend you should be focusing on.

Other data sets tell a tale of an epidemic that is still spreading, though not very rapidly. The Virginia Department of Health reported 4,062 new tests, 565 new cases, 12 new hospitalizations, and 10 new deaths in today’s data.

Testing and the shutdown. Governor Northam has set a goal of seeing a declining rate of infections based on 10,000 tests daily before relaxing his draconian economic shutdown. The good news is that testing has ramped up considerably — doubling from roughly 2,000 daily to 4,000 daily over the past week. The bad news is that the results are exceedingly difficult to interpret, if not downright meaningless. Only a small percentage of tests are positive — 13.9% of those whose results were reported yesterday had the virus.

The declining rate of positive tests, down from a peak of 39.5% positive,  suggests that a lot more results are coming in from private labs. These tests are driven in large measure by patients who think they might have the virus and ask to be tested, not by protocols used by the Virginia Department of Health that prioritize the sickest patients based on their symptoms. We are not getting a random sample, and I don’t see how the Governor can use these numbers in guiding his decisions affecting the economy.