Opinion: Georgia must get better numbers

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks with healthcare workers while touring a community COVID-19 testing site in Gainesville, Friday, May 15, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks with healthcare workers while touring a community COVID-19 testing site in Gainesville, Friday, May 15, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Numbers are critical to Georgia’s efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. A key element along the path toward besting COVID-19 should be the quantitative data that public health officials, state leaders and all the rest of us can routinely, if not nervously, examine to determine our next steps.

Making the right calls on reopening the economy, individual workplaces, or even whether it’s safe to sit down for a restaurant meal, demands good, accurate data. And such data can inspire confidence in leaders making decisions, and in citizens who must trust the decisions those leaders make.

To say the least, Georgia keeps bumbling along on the matter. And while the mistakes the state has made reporting the statistics during this pandemic are likely just that – mistakes and human errors – our Department of Public Health has damaged our state’s reputation and squandered the confidence of its citizens.

That has to change, especially when flawed data is almost certainly being used to support decisions around easing restrictions that have helped flatten the coronavirus’ infection curve.

Georgia’s state government simply has to provide accurate numbers and other information that is consistent over time in its methodology and what precisely is being measured, or isn’t.

That has been far from the case up to now, as reporting on Georgia’s statistical shortcomings by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news outlets has repeatedly shown.

On Thursday, the AJC reported that coronavirus testing stats had been inflated by 57,000 tests, or about 14% of total tests to date. That’s about 1 in 7 tests. This latest error came about because the Georgia Department of Public Health had included antibody tests along with diagnostic tests in its tallies. Antibody tests can detect whether a person once had the coronavirus. Diagnostic tests are intended to measure active infections.

Lumping both together is misleading, experts say, because it distorts a state’s capacity to track current infections. Not to mention they measure two very different things.

And given Georgia’s initial lag in both testing and in being slow to implement social-distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus, this is the type of error we can ill-afford. State leaders were touting Georgia’s fast progress in implementing more testing. Removing the antibody tests from the numbers dropped Georgia from 20th to 29th among states in per capita testing. And it resulted in harsh – and well-deserved — criticism of our way of assessing the virus’ spread. Georgia must do better.

Worse, the antibody vs. diagnostic test count is not the only numerical misstep that we’ve seen here. The sporting-world phrase “unforced error” – mistakes attributable only to one’s own failures — is being appropriately applied too often to Georgia’s public health bungling.

At least three times in as many weeks, problematic data has been reported here. This sloppiness has involved case counts, number of reported deaths and other measures used to track and assess the fight against COVID-19. Previously, the state lacked adequate stats on the race of coronavirus victims, even as the disease was killing or sickening African Americans at rates far above their proportion of the population.

Georgia’s lackadaisical-at-best performance so far has understandably fueled suspicion and doubt about just where this state is in efforts to best this virus. State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, summed up matters well in Thursday’s AJC: “Maybe one mistake is an accident. A second – that’s a little funny,” Jordan said. “But after you get to the third or fourth time, with the mistakes representing a specific conclusion, you have to start to wonder what is happening in terms of management of data.”

That’s a logical question, especially so when flawed data is being used in part to support reopening portions of Georgia against the advice of many public health experts, who worry that the state will start to see potentially deadly backsliding in trendlines that had looked to be improving in recent days.

The only remotely encouraging aspect to revelations about Georgia’s statistical problems is that state officials seem to be owning their mistakes. Gov. Brian Kemp said during a Thursday press conference that he’s ordered a review of how Georgia has reported coronavirus data. “We’re not perfect. We make mistakes,” said Kemp of the criticism over errors in reporting COVID-19 stats.

DPH Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey likewise acknowledged Georgia’s data problems so far. “Data are only good if you can look at them and understand what they mean,” she told the AJC. “As an epidemiologist this is something very important to me. We want to make sure we do everything we can to get these data in the most accurate but also easy to understand format.”

She’s absolutely right in that regard. Anyone doubting that need only look at the sum of COVID-19’s human cost here: Nearly 1,800 deaths and more than 40,600 confirmed cases as of last Thursday night. Seventy-eight deaths were reported between May 20 and 21, a higher number than had been seen in recent days.

Georgia can’t afford questionable, or outright erroneous, numbers as our health system scrambles still to contain this pandemic and treat its victims.

Gov. Kemp and state public officials have to do much better – fast — in providing the critical information that can help save lives and speed the day then COVID-19 is behind us and we can fully resume our normal lives.

The state’s leaders must commit to a better system for public health statistics, and then support and finance it. After all, this virus is likely to be around for a while, and others will follow. Georgia likes to tout its reputation as a great place for business. A healthy population will be a requirement for such a reputation as this century moves on. And all businesspeople know that knowing your numbers matters. When it comes to public health, Georgia at this point doesn’t know its numbers.

The Editorial Board.