States accused of fudging or bungling COVID-19 testing data

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Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A worker instructs people on how to collect their own nasopharyngeal swab samples to test for the coronavirus at a drive-thru testing site organized by the nonprofit organization Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy in Chicago on Monday, May 18, 2020. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

WELLINGTON – Public health officials in some states are accused of bungling coronavirus infection statistics or even using a little sleight of hand to deliberately make things look better than they are.

The risk is that politicians, business owners and ordinary Americans who are making decisions about lockdowns, reopenings and other day-to-day matters could be left with the impression that the virus is under more control than it actually is.

In Virginia, Texas and Vermont, for example, officials said they have been combining the results of viral tests, which show an active infection, with antibody tests, which show a past infection. Public health experts say that can make for impressive-looking testing totals but does not give a true picture of how the virus is spreading.

In Florida, the data scientist who developed the state’s coronavirus dashboard, Rebekah Jones, said this week that she was fired for refusing to manipulate data “to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” Calls to health officials for comment were not immediately returned Tuesday.

In Georgia, one of the earliest states to ease up on lockdowns and assure the public it was safe to go out again, the Department of Public Health published a graph around 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.

For example, the May 7 totals came 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. The graph was taken down within about a day.

Georgia state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat with a doctorate in microbiology, said the graph was a “prime example of malfeasance.”

"Sadly it feels like there’s been an attempt to make the data fit the narrative, and that’s not how data works,” she said.