A medical worker takes a swab sample at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Washington D.C., the United States, on May 19 (XINHUA)
Public health officials in some states of the U.S. are accused of bungling coronavirus infection statistics or even using a little sleight of hand to deliberately make the picture better than they are, according to a report by the Associated Press (AP).
Such attempts pose a risk. Politicians, business owners and ordinary Americans who are making decisions about lockdowns, reopening and other daily matters could be left with the impression that the COVID-19 has been under more control than it actually is.
Officials in states such as Virginia, Texas and Vermont have been reported to combine the results of viral tests, which show an active infection, with antibody tests, which show a past infection. According to public health experts, this can make for impressive-looking testing totals but does not give a true picture of how the virus is actually spreading.
Rebekah Jones, the data scientist who developed Florida’s coronavirus dashboard, told AP that she was fired for refusing to manipulate data “to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”
The U.S. has recorded 1.5 million confirmed infections and over 90,000 deaths. The Trump administration has given guidelines for lifting states’ lockdowns, saying that before they begin reopening, a 14-day downward trend in infections should be seen. However, some states reopened when infections were still climbing or had plateaued.
In Georgia, one of the earliest states to ease its lockdown and assure the public it was safe to go out again, the Department of Public Health published a graph on May 11 that showed new COVID-19 cases declining over time in the most severely affected counties. The daily entries, however, were not arranged in chronological order but in descending order.
The state, for example, presented the May 7 totals right before April 26, which was followed by May 3. A quick look at the graph made it appear as if the decline was smoother than it really was.
Georgia State Representative Jasmine Clark, a Democrat with a doctorate in microbiology, told AP that the graph was a “prime example of malfeasance.” She added that “sadly it feels like there’s been an attempt to make the data fit the narrative, and that’s not how data works.”
Thomas Tsai, a professor at the Harvard Global Health Institute, told AP that the way Georgia reports data makes it harder to understand what the current conditions are. He also worries that other states, too, may be presenting data in a way that doesn’t capture the most up-to-date information.
Copyedited by Madhusudan Chaubey
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