‘We’re not perfect.’ Kemp orders review after coronavirus data missteps

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp makes remarks during a COVID-19 press briefing at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Thursday, May 21, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp makes remarks during a COVID-19 press briefing at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Thursday, May 21, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp said Thursday he has ordered a review of how the state is reporting coronavirus figures, and he asked the public to have patience with health officials after a string of missteps raised questions about the accuracy of the latest data about the outbreak.

“We’re not perfect. We make mistakes,” said Kemp of the criticism over mistakes in reporting data on COVID-19 in the state public health data website. He said increased pressure to more quickly update the data has likely contributed to the errors.

“My goal is to continue to be transparent and have the right data there,” said Kemp. “And if we don’t, we’re going to own that. We’re going to tell people what happened. We’re going to get it fixed. And we’re going to keep moving on.”

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

The state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, said she’s also implemented a new protocol to screen for errors in coronavirus figures before they’re posted.

“We’re continuing to work and improve all of our reporting systems,” she said. “That’s what’s going to give us the ability to respond accurately.”

The governor’s remarks came as the state’s problems reporting COVID-19 data have made leaders the target of ridicule – and sparked criticism from Democrats and some public health experts who have accused his office of distorting the numbers to paint a sunnier picture of the state’s coronavirus approach.

Some of these errors could be forgiven as mistakes during a chaotic time. But the snafus, confusing information and questionable decisions about presenting the data have continued despite the increased scrutiny.

The latest occurred on Wednesday when Toomey acknowledged that a measure to track the number of tests completed for COVID-19 included 57,000 that are not designed to detect active cases.

Researchers agree that lumping these antibody tests in the same category as screenings used to find the virus can be misleading.

The antibody test is designed to show whether someone was previously infected, and cannot detect someone who was infected recently. Adding them to the viral test numbers may give the impression that Georgia’s testing ramp-up is going better than it actually is.

The viral test diagnoses someone who is currently ill and helps public health workers identify and isolate people spreading the virus. States where large proportions of their populations have been tested have a better grasp of the disease’s prevalence and are better able to make informed decisions about when and how to reopen.

"My goal is to continue to be transparent and have the right data there. And if we don't, we're going to own that. We're going to tell people what happened. We're going to get it fixed. And we're going to keep moving on." —Gov. Brian Kemp

At Thursday's press conference, Kemp said he asked state health officials to review the reporting procedures “to see if there's something different we should do,” and suggested the state could wait a day before publishing the latest results.

“I would imagine if we had done that a month ago, we would have been heavily criticized. But right now my goal is to make sure we continue to be transparent and we have the right data there.”

Kemp has repeatedly urged all Georgians – even if they don't have symptoms – to get coronavirus testing. And the disclosure that antibody tests were included in the overall count undermines his claims that Georgia's testing is back on track.

Once ranked among the worst in the nation in the share of residents tested, the state's ranking stood at 20 with the antibody tests. Without them, the rate of testing dropped below average to 29th.

“I think it’s too early for us to be declaring any kind of victory based on the numbers in Georgia,” said Benjamin Lopman, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Emory University.

» RELATED: State's latest data mishap causes critics to cry foul

» MORE: Latest data lapse inflated Georgia's virus test count by 57,000

On Thursday, Kemp touted a different figure: The ongoing decline in the rate of hospitalizations for coronavirus, a number that’s dropped by more than a third since the start of the month, according to state data. He also highlighted more efforts to open screening sites across the state.

“We need to further expand access to testing and encourage Georgians to make it a priority,” he said.

‘Like no other’

The governor also outlined his administration’s plan to prepare for a surge of Memorial Day traffic that will test the state’s reopening strategy as more residents are expected to return to the roadways and visit parks, beaches and other destinations.

Mark Williams, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, said most of the agency’s law enforcement division officers will patrol waterways over the weekend.

And Georgia State Patrol Troopers plan to “saturate” state beaches to enforce social distancing guidelines and break up large gatherings, said Col. Gary Vowell of the Department of Public Safety.

“It will be like no other (Memorial Day) that we’ve had before,” said Vowell.

Georgians have steadily returned to the beaches since Kemp's statewide order in April lifted restrictions that shuttered the seashore. But local officials are bracing for a surge of new visitors as more businesses reopen, virtual school years wind down and a holiday weekend beckons.

The seaside town of Tybee Island, whose leaders were among the loudest critics of Kemp's approach, drew nearly 25,000 people last weekend.

Mayor Shirley Sessions said she's expecting even larger crowds over the holiday break. The city of 3,000 plans to assign more parking staff to help clear the roadways and more lifeguards to patrol crowded beaches. And it plans more aggressive enforcement to crack down on illegal parking.

“Are we ready? That is the million-dollar question. Can you really ever be ready for the unknown?” she said. “We’re doing everything we can do to be prepared.”

Further down the coastline, tourism officials in the Brunswick area say some hotels are sold out for the weekend.

“We also are seeing bookings continue to increase for our summer season,” said Scott McQuade, chief executive of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Although we may not break records for tourism this summer, we are just happy to have our visitors come back.”