COVID-19 Update: The Virus Hasn’t Changed, but the Numbers Have

by James A. Bacon

The biggest news in the wonky world of Virginia COVID-19 statistics yesterday wasn’t some new wrinkle in the trend lines — take a look at the chart above and you’ll see that COVID-19 usage of hospital resources continues on a stable-to-declining path — it was the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) announcement that it was making a big change to how it compiles the number of tests it reports daily.

In the past, we learned yesterday, VDH counted the total number of people tested rather than the total number of tests administered. Therefore, if an individual was tested three or four times, he or she was counted only once. The switch accounts for the dramatic one-day surge in tests reported yesterday — more than 14,800, or almost three times the previous high number.

Now VDH displays on its dashboard both the total number of individuals tested and the total number of tests. Thus, 101,344 individuals have been tested (or, more accurately, have had their test results reported to the VDH), while 112,450 tests have been reported.
Some may be tempted to ridicule VDH for making this change. But I’m inclined to be charitable. It shows that VDH may be slow to adapt, but at least it’s not totally asleep at the switch. Nobody’s been through this drill before. There’s no settled format for presenting COVID-19 data, and VDH officials have had to figure it out as they go along. What’s important is that VDH thinking about how to present the data in a way that informs Governor Ralph Northam and state public health officials as they make critical decisions on how long to maintain COVID-19 lockdown measures.

This particular data set is critical because the Governor has said he won’t begin rolling back lockdown measures until the state develops the capacity to run at least 10,000 tests per day and also experiences  a two-week decline in the percentage of tests that test positive for the virus, among other metrics. If those are his criteria, it’s important to know whether we’re talking about 10,000 new individuals tested or 10,000 total tests of any kind.

In the administration’s weekly Friday press conference, VDH chief Norman Oliver explained that the new methodology will enable the state to better calculate the percentage of tests that come back positive. Presumably, a declining percentage suggests that the spread of the virus is decelerating.

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13 responses to “COVID-19 Update: The Virus Hasn’t Changed, but the Numbers Have”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I found it curious how the news of the testing regime changed – was “reported” – not so well.

    The critics have been pouncing left and right but not a peep from them over this – really important change … credit Jim – who has noted it.

    In terms of “downward trend” – are we overthinking this (again?), isn’t a commonsense view that what we want and need to loosen restrictions is less infected people – isn’t that the relevant metric? What’s the best proxies for that?

    Or , are there folks who think it’s wrong for Northam to make that a requirement for loosening restrictions in the first place?

    Finally, it looks like UVA has a model, are there others?, that COULD be used as a rough tool (that could be improved) – to base some decisions?

    Models – are not dead-on-correct crystal balls, just look at hurricane modelling. How useful is it for a hurricane model to tell you , say within a 100 miles where it will hit? Is it “wrong” because it’s not accurate to 10 miles?

    And so far, no advice to the seniors to go hide under the beds… ;-0

  2. April 13, UVA TODAY, “The Virginia Department of Health asked Biocomplexity Institute researchers in January to model the spread of COVID-19 within the state, and to provide tools to help policymakers make sound science-based disease mitigation decisions.”

    March 2: UVA TODAY We ” are creating decision support tools and dashboards to help the general public and health care authorities improve situation assessments.”

    And VDH hasn’t been counting all the tests all along?

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    The numbers at DOC are fairly stable. There was an increase of 28 in the total number of positives. Almost all of that (27 cases) came in Dillwyn. The numbers at that facility have steadily increased since DOC started the testing of all inmates. I am assuming that the results are still coming in. Here is the daily summary:

    Summary of COVID-19 Cases in Va. Dept. of Corrections
    As of 5:00 p.m., April 30

    Cumulative testing positive 524
    Total Deaths 3
    Active positive cases in facilities 446
    Number in hospital 11
    Recovered 64
    Staff currently tested positive 66

    The other incarcerated population vulnerable to COVID-19 is that of local and regional jails. There is no central reporting of positive cases in jails; we are reliant on press reports. So far, there have been only a few. The RTD reported today the 10 inmates at the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville had tested positive, with one of those requiring hospitalization. None of the other four regional jails in central Virginia had reported any positive cases. There was an April 24 report that 26 inmates in the Norfolk City jail had tested positive. Earlier in the pandemic crisis, I remember hearing of one positive case in the Fairfax County jail.;

    These numbers and lack of other reports are far from the “exploding infection rates” feared by the ACLU.

    Jails across the state have reduced their populations by various means as one way of reducing the risk. Ironically, this strategy, urged by many, may ultimately hurt the jails and their localities financially. The state reimburses jails $4 per inmate per day for each “local responsible” inmate in custody. Reducing their populations will decrease the money coming from the state, but not necessarily reduce their expenses by the same amount. On the other hand, DOC had stopped transferring “state responsible” offenders to state prisons. The state reimburses jails $12 a day for those prisoners. It remains to be seen how well the jails make out financially.

  4. Jim Loving Avatar
    Jim Loving

    Based on the models and data collected and presented by Kevin Systrom and Thomas Vladeck, the Rt (Rate of Transmission) for Virginia is now less than 1.0, (.86 at this moment) which means the virus will stop spreading. See their data and site here:

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Compared to last weekend, the crowds out and about in Richmond’s West End are much thicker today. A double line had formed for the McDonald’s drive thru, and the Starbuck’s auto line snaked out of the parking lot onto the road. The park where we ate our ice cream (delivered to the car) was not packed, but busy. The fear is dissipating fast. Not sure that letting us into the dining rooms or into a barber chair adds much risk now.

  6. Jim Loving, they say to calibrate with other sources like
    Their estimates are a little over a week old, but show increasing and 1.1.
    How should we factor that in, or do we need to see what their next update says?

    New confirmed cases by infection date 822 (742 – 885)
    Expected change in daily cases Increasing
    Effective reproduction no. 1.1 (1.1 – 1.2)
    Doubling/halving time (days) 26 (17 – 50)

  7. Jim, VDH had 16,500 MRC volunteers as of April 24. If they wanted to input the uncounted negative lab reports, don’t you think they would have used a couple of volunteers to do that by now? Why not count them currently–– unless the governor doesn’t want those negative tests recorded because it will change the percentages?

    1. If they wanted to input the uncounted negative lab reports, don’t you think they would have used a couple of volunteers to do that by now?

      Your question is a reasonable one. I don’t know enough about how VDH pulls together its figures to know the answer. Could volunteers do the job? I don’t know.

      I kinda sorta go through a mental triage on questions like yours. First step, do I even understand the issue well enough to make a hard statement about it.

      Second, if something does seem awry, could be be due to incompetence?

      Third and finally, only then do I suspect that some nefarious motive might be afoot.

      In my experience incompetence is far more common than skullduggery.

      My gut instinct tells me that the Northam COVID-19 team simply hadn’t thought through what it was doing with the statistics. It’s been a chaotic time. These guys aren’t the A team. It’s taken them a bit longer to figure out what they’re dong. That’s my acting supposition until I see evidence that suggests otherwise.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        That is much more reasonable than some of the ridiculous conspiracy theories that some commenters on this blog spout.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          In addition, we have a very long track record of proven duplicity on many fronts, highly informed and contrary reporting on many and growing number of fronts, our own experience on issues such as modeling, many long standing falsehoods obvious on their face, and our common sense, to guide us through nearly endless smoke screens that obscure, alter and misinform the public on the reality of broad arrays of events in Virginia. Horses do not change colors.

          Read Bacon’s Rebellion’s Archives. Those archive draw such a record. Likely one sees there only tips of icebergs. Every where one looks more break through the surface into plain view. Never are they admitted by those accountable, much less fixed and reformed, save for rare exceptions. It’s a whole world of bogus traffic studies.

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            For one among a decade of examples go here:


            Here is a small taste.
            Reed Fawell 3rd | August 20, 2016 at 9:35 am | Reply

            Now we are getting into the meat of things. When I read this opinion piece the first time a few days ago, I thought, Oh, my God, a UVA official, a professor tasked to act as a UVA PR spin doctor has wildly gone off the reservation. The man is literally telling us the truth! Amazing.

            This opens up for us a Pandora’s box. Where to start. For one, go and look at the statements of all the rests of UVA’s spin doctors, misleaders, and untruth tellers. They and their phony baloney are much easier to see now the a single person in their camp has gone off reservation by TELLING THE TRUTH.

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          Is there even an agreed standardized framework for testing data such
          that someone could say something like ” yeah, Virginia is not doing it the standard accepted way”?

          It’s not like this is a well “settled” discipline/approach. There are lots of players, lots of models, and a lot of flying by the seat of the pants.

          Even folks like Cuomo are “wiggling” a bit on some of this.

          It’s really hard to be a really good critic when you don’t know all the facts…

          They’re making progress… some will say careful and deliberate others will say slow and bumbling… pick your poison.

      2. So either Northam’s administration ignored UVA’s advice, or UVA didn’t give them advice since January on counting tests? I don’t see a third option.
        Do you?

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