It is easy for me to understand why the general public gets confused about all the different statistics on the pandemic. I spend a lot of time, often 6-8 hours a day, reading reports, studies, articles, and listening to “experts” on radio and TV.
First of all, there are so many things being measured—total cases, total deaths, case fatality rates, mortality rate, rate of disease, and on and on. All of these data points are important to public health professionals, but what about us ordinary folk who are just trying to determine what is going on in our community and what we should do to protect our families?
Second, people with a political agenda will show stats that support their narrative. The chart President Trump recently showed during an interview with Chris Wallace on the Fox News Channel told a wildly different story than the chart displayed by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC a few days later. It very much depends on how the data are used.
Moreover, many things in life are too complex for a single measurement. Baseball provides a superb example.
In 1923 Babe Ruth struck out more than any other major league player. However, strike outs were just one measure of Ruth’s performance in 1923. That same year he posted the best batting average in the major leagues, and set the record for most home runs in a single season—a record that lasted nearly four decades.
So, if you are not a public health professional or don’t have unlimited time to analyze all the data, what numbers should you use to determine the threat to you and your family?
I recommend you focus on statistics in your county, and perhaps a few bordering counties. I live in Round Rock, Texas, so I frequently do a quick check of the numbers for Williamson County and Travis County (Austin) since I live just a few miles north of Austin.
The most important numbers to watch are the percent of positive tests. For the first several months of the pandemic, we were keeping the positive test rate in central Texas below 5 percent. That is very good.
As Texas began opening our economy, we kept the positive rate low—until we went to Phase III which opened the bars and allowed restaurants to go from 25 percent occupancy up to 75 percent, and did not require masks in public places.
Many people took this as a sign that the pandemic was under control. Shortly thereafter, the positive test rate quickly tripled. In some Texas cities it climbed to 25 percent. One out of every four tests were coming back positive.
A second number to watch is hospital capacity in your community. In May, Williamson County had more than 50 percent of ICU beds available. Today it is down to 5 percent, and Travis County has only 10 percent available, and work is underway to turn the Austin Convention Center into a COVID-19 facility.
A third key indicator to watch, and admittedly this can be more difficult to find (local governments are not so eager to share this information), is the time between testing and when results are provided to those being tested. Two weeks is not uncommon. I waited 15 days.
You often hear politicians bragging about the number of tests being given, but when results are delayed more than a couple days, the tests are useless in controlling the spread of disease. A positive test means the person has been infected, whether or not they have symptoms, and should go into self-quarantine.
Even when you narrow the statistics down to these three key indicators, there is no easy place to find these numbers. The best way to get daily updates on these indicators would be from local press outlets. Local reporters for newspapers, radio and TV stations should be providing this information to you and your family.
If you can find a website to easily track these key indicators, please let us know.