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'COVID Tracking Project' Co-Founder On Misleading Virus Statistics


The number of deaths from coronavirus in the United States is about to reach 100,000. Those are lives, not just statistics. But statistics, including the number of tests, new cases and hospitalizations necessary to try to keep track of the virus - some of those numbers now appear to be misreported, mangled or just wrong.

Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic magazine, who co-founded the COVID Tracking Project, has been collecting and analyzing the numbers from states and joins us. Mr. Meyer, thanks so much for being with us.

ROBINSON MEYER: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: States have been, obviously, reporting data for months now. In your judgment, lots of mistakes or misrepresentations?

MEYER: I would say the states have done a fairly good job. But there are now a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia - and Virginia used to be doing this, but it has since stopped - that are reporting viral and antibody tests, which are these two different kinds of coronavirus tests, in the same metric. And that's the biggest issue right now, and it's really limiting our ability to understand the pandemic.


MEYER: So the two tests tell you different things. A viral test tells you whether somebody is sick right now, and it's the kind of test that we would use to do contact tracing. It's the kind of test we'd use for someone who works in a high-risk environment or someone who might be sick. An antibody test tells you something very different. It says, has someone been exposed or fought off a COVID infection in the recent past, and, in fact, did they fight it off more than a week ago? They give you two different kinds of information. And when you combine them together, those two different kinds of information get completely muddled.

SIMON: Mr. Meyer, who's been combining those numbers, health care professionals or politicians and bureaucrats?

MEYER: (Laughter) So in Virginia, we know it was happening at the top level. We know that they were being told viral tests and antibody test data, and they were combining it together because another benefit of combining them is that it makes your per capita testing rate go up because it says more tests, right? In other states - in Georgia, in Pennsylvania, in Texas - Vermont and Maine were recently doing this as well - the labs that conduct these tests know what kind of tests they're conducting and should be reporting them separately. And other states have had no problem reporting these two kinds of tests separately. And so it would really surprise me that if this was happening at the health care level. I think in most states, it's happening at the top level.

SIMON: And remind us what the risk is in misreporting data or misrepresenting it?

MEYER: There are a number of states that have pegged their reopening to basically the rate of tests that come back positive. And if you combine these two types of tests, it really skews that metric. In most cases, it makes it lower than it would otherwise be, and it looks more favorable to the public. And there's some concern that states are opening - reopening before their own metrics say they should basically because they're not working with the right kind of data and they've combined these two tests.

SIMON: Mr. Meyer, there's so many numbers, and they can seem confusing and bewildering. What numbers do you keep your eyes on that can really tell us how we're doing?

MEYER: There's two numbers that I look at in any state, the number of new cases per day and then the positivity rate or the percent of tests that come back positive every day, because there are some states where the number of new cases is going up, but the positive rate is falling very quickly. And if we're confident that those states are only telling us viral tests, then that means that probably what we're seeing isn't that the outbreak is growing; it's that the state is testing more people, and it's discovering more cases that were already out there.

Two other metrics that I keep an eye on are whatever the kind of new hospitalization admittance rate or new ER admittance rate for COVID is. That's a fairly good metric of, how well was the disease contained a week or two ago? Because of - that's - a week or two is, like, the lag on how long it takes a new COVID infection to get bad enough to show up at the hospital. And then the other one is deaths, of course. But it's almost giving us the state of what the outbreak was a month ago.

SIMON: It's hard to make decisions effectively in a lag, isn't it?

MEYER: Exactly. And I think most states, at this point, have started to phase back some of their shelter-in-place or social distancing policies. And what's hard is that we won't really have the data to know, you know, what's safe and what isn't and what is resulting in a surge of new infections for another few weeks.

SIMON: Robinson Meyer is co-founder of the COVID Tracking Project. Thank you so much for being with us.

MEYER: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.