What You Need To Know: Understanding Georgia's COVID-19 Data
Georgia Public Broadcasting’s new series What You Need To Know: Coronavirus provides succinct, fact-based information to help you get through the coronavirus pandemic with your health and sanity intact.
When it comes to coronavirus, there is a lot of data. Cases change all the time, and that can be very confusing. GPB's Rickey Bevington asks GPB's Grant Blankenship to simplify the numbers.
So before we talk about what data is published, let's take just a moment to talk about how it's all collected. How is the Georgia Department of Public Health gathering all of this information?
Well, the data DPH reports every day is submitted by a pretty vast array of testing sites. These can be hospitals, health departments, private labs, but there's an electronic reporting system standardized across all of those for them to report their results. There, they can record things like a patient's age, sex, whether or not they have any underlying conditions and whether or not the person was hospitalized and also, crucially, county residents.
What was missing until recently was anything related to race. That's been changed and the proportion of those for whom [the] race is unknown is shrinking as new infections are identified, though that race unknown number is still in the thousands.
So if I were to go to the DPH COVID-19 data page, what would I see?
Well, the first thing you'd likely see are some large numbers. I say "large" because they are literally physically bigger on the page and the one that gets the most attention is total infections.
Now, if you want to get beyond that raw number and look at how infections are affecting communities, scroll down the page and look at the big map and look for confirmed case rates per 100,000 people.
And there you'll see that the counties that have been most affected by coronavirus are outside of the Atlanta metro area and are mostly majority black or Latino communities.
Part of the push is to test more of these asymptomatic people. Who are they and how are their infections going to be reflected in the daily reporting?
Right. Sure. It's important to remember that up until now, the people who've been given tests are those who've been clearly sick, people who have COVID-19. Tests for people who aren't sick have been reserved for doctors, nurses, workers and long term healthcare settings and other critical workers. That's what's changing.
I watched Georgia National Guard and Air National Guard members test about 100 symptom-free regular people. This was in Macon, in my neighborhood. That's work being done by Augusta University. You may have heard Governor Kemp talk about Augusta University as an important testing partner for the state. Dr. Philip Coule is the chief medical officer at Agusta University. He says asymptomatic tests are important because, remember, you can pass on the virus even if you never feel sick "or perhaps you just have some mild symptoms and you think it's your allergies. But [if] I tell you that you have COVID-19 and you need to isolate yourself at home, at least for the next 14 days, then what I've done is reduce the risk to everyone around you."
And if researchers can do that over and over, they can stop outbreaks before they even start.
So, Grant, we're gonna see the infection numbers increase. Isn't that a cause for alarm?
Not necessarily. Dr. Coule says we would expect that to happen as more infected, but not sick people are identified by the tests and then advised to self isolate.
In some sense, the increase in known infections is kind of a sign that researchers are getting a handle on the virus.
So if I don't have symptoms, but I want to test from the Georgia Department of Health, where do I go and when can we see the data from these tests?
Right now, Augusta University says it's 20 counties, mostly in southwest Georgia, where anyone can get this asymptomatic test. They advise people to download their app to begin that process.
Dr. Coule says he's looking to add more counties as data warrants and his test supplies allow. And then the data from these tests are going to roll up into one of those big numbers I talked about earlier on the DPH data page, that total infection number.
As it happens and as we compare infections to the number of deaths, Dr. Coole says we will see the fatality rate, the percentage of infected people who die. We'll see that number drop. Coule says that's not a sign that coronavirus isn't dangerous. It still clearly is. But it maybe is a sign that we in the public shouldn't be so obsessed with the fatality rate.