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What you need to know when analyzing daily COVID-19 data

Dr. Ashok Rai urges people to look for trends in the numbers instead of reading into them on a daily basis.
Published: Sep. 9, 2020 at 5:46 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Every day Action 2 News provides the latest numbers from state health officials related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That data is meant to be educational for the general public as long as it is interpreted correctly.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) updates the COVID-19 numbers daily with an array of bar graphs, percentages, and maps displaying that information.

“A statistic is information used to describe something as a whole,” said Rachel Johnson, a math instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC).

“I think as far as testing goes, there’s two different ways to look at it," said Dr. Ashok Rai, Prevea Health President and CEO. "One is how many people are getting tested, and the second is how many people are positive versus negative.”

For example, Dr. Rai says Labor Day weekend can skew recent numbers with a lower number tests being reported and a higher number of those test coming back positive with some of those the result of a two- or three-day backlog.

“Internally the state and those of us that are health care providers look at it daily to make sure there’s not an issue with turnaround times in the lab, to make sure all of our testing sites are working,” said Dr. Rai.

Why is that information posted publicly every day for everyone else?

“I don’t know why," said Dr. Rai. "You know, I think unfortunately it has a lot of people somewhat tunnel-visioned and focused on every day numbers. I think there’s a term out there called clickbait and creates definite media awareness to a headline.”

He tells Action 2 News the numbers on a daily basis “doesn’t really do anybody actually any good” often adding to the anxiety and confusion many people already feel in these stressful times.

“I think some people want to react and look for, ‘Well, the numbers are going to tell me when it’s going to go away,’ and it’s not,” said Dr. Rai. “All the numbers are going to tell you are it’s still here and it’s a mostly controlled situation.”

“One of the things I’ve noticed is recently there have been differences in tracking day-to-day,” said Johnson. “They’re starting to do week-to-week which is probably a better picture of a better idea of what’s going on.”

“Take a deep breath. The DHS website has under their COVID-19, if you click on that link, they have one tab called ‘summary,'” said Dr. Rai. “It’s a good thing to look at. Look at the summary, there’s a percent positivity graph, and they actually give you a seven-day look on a trendline."

Another thing to keep in mind: coronavirus data and interpretation is always changing.

“No piece of data is 100-percent perfect to be honest with you,” said Dr. Rai. “It has changed over time as we learn more about the coronavirus and about it’s replication cycle, we interpret the data differently today than maybe if you asked me that question in March.”

Copyright 2020 WBAY. All rights reserved.

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