Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Georgia, one of first states to reopen despite high rural infection rate, has posted bad data on health agency site

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp began to allow businesses in his state to reopen in late April, making it one of the one of the earliest states to do so, even though rural parts of the state had some of the nation's highest infection rates. But data from the state Department of Public Health data, which Kemp invoked to justify the reopening, has several times been faulty in ways that makes Georgia look less hard-hit by the pandemic than it is, and in any case makes it more difficult to tell what's really going on in the state, Willoughby Mariano and J. Scott Trubey report for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Observers "have noted sloppiness in case counts, death counts and other measures that are fundamental to tracking a disease outbreak," they report. That's a problem when opinion writers such as The Wall Street Journal's James Freeman cite Georgia's DPH data to encourage other states to open back up for business, so this could serve as a cautionary tale for other states.

A recent bar chart on the health department's website "appeared to show good news: new confirmed cases in the counties with the most infections had dropped every single day for the past two weeks," Mariano and Trubey report. But that trend only appeared because the dates were out of order.

"Some of these errors could be forgiven as mistakes made during a chaotic time. But putting days in the wrong order, as the recently withdrawn chart did, makes no sense," Mariano and Trubey report. "In fact, there was no clear downward trend. The data is still preliminary, and cases have held steady or dropped slightly in the past two weeks. Experts agree that cases in those five counties were flat when Georgia began to reopen late last month."

The health department changed the graph last week after widespread ridicule, and Kemp's office promised that such an error would never happen again. But the error was the third in as many weeks, and though some of the errors make the pandemic look worse—the department erroneously reported at least twice that children had died—some make it look not as bad.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, who received her doctorate in microbiology and molecular genetics at Emory University, told the Journal-Constitution: "I have a hard time understanding how this happens without it being deliberate . . . Literally nowhere ever in any type of statistics would that be acceptable."

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