Why Texas’ coronavirus data comes with caveats

COVID-19 test samples are organized into coolers at a mobile testing site at Uhland Elementary School in Uhland.      Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
COVID-19 test samples are organized into coolers at a mobile testing site at Uhland Elementary School in Uhland. Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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Accurate and up-to-date coronavirus data is critical — not just for informing the officials making policy, but for parents trying to decide whether to send their kids to day care and business owners wondering whether to reopen their stores.

But Texas officials keep correcting the data — whether it’s because of human error, shifting benchmarks or bureaucratic changes. Last week, Texas revised its coronavirus fatality toll up by hundreds of people — then down again, lending fuel to skeptics who question the accuracy of the government data. The state does not typically report complete hospitalization data, and during a recent week was reporting even less than usual. And a myriad of tests with varying accuracy have confused its metrics, with some local health departments including test results the state considers unreliable.

Experts say the state’s coronavirus data is useful as long as users understand its limitations — and can identify misinformation campaigns that attempt to discredit it. Generating precise, comprehensive data about a previously unknown virus that has infected millions is next to impossible. Rapidly changing testing technology, inconsistent data collection processes and an evolving understanding of the virus’ effects on the human body have complicated the state’s herculean task of reporting health data that researchers, policymakers, journalists and the public devour each day.

The Texas Department of State Health Services coronavirus dashboard updates daily with new numbers of confirmed cases, tests performed, deaths and more, with limited demographic information and some numbers broken out by county. Texas fares well on data transparency in comparison with other states, earning an A for the quality of its data from The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project, one of the most robust U.S. resources on the virus.

“From a purely informational point of view, the [state] dashboard is helpful. … If you’re actually working in data with COVID-19, trying to inform policy or disease modeling, those researchers are well aware of the limitations that we have right now,” said Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “There’s utility in it because we recognize that it’s imperfect.”

But over the past four months, data errors have plagued several important metrics that the state reports, mistakes that have the potential to mislead decision-makers about the virus’ true course, and to feed dangerous misinformation narratives. Those risks are particularly urgent at a time when epidemiologists are calling for protective measures such as mask-wearing and keeping distance from others.

“It’s only with the data that I can make a prediction” or policy recommendations, said Rajesh Nandy, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center who recently analyzed whether mask orders slowed viral transmission in North Texas.