COVID data represents the life and death struggle for our friends, family and community.
By ANDREW JOHNSON
We live in a time when due to the near constant news cycle, social media, and instant communication tools, we are bombarded with data.
The data that is being collected and disseminated about COVID-19 is plentiful and we often think that having more data will lead to greater understanding of how this virus is affecting our communities.
Typically, I would wholeheartedly agree.
Running a complex analysis to understand how variables interact with one another often requires many data points to better “explain” what is going on.
However, our goal is not to have perfect information for submission to an academic journal or to have the most accurate model. Policy makers and individuals need data to make decisions in the now. Individuals, businesses, and government leaders are all seeking data to understand how best to proceed as we navigate this difficult situation.
Two of Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent orders, (one restricting the opening of bars and the other limiting the size of groups), both came at the end of the week likely to avoid large weekend gatherings and work to lessen the spread of the virus.
First, we need to understand the questions to ask. My PhD advisor would have scolded me for searching out data to be followed by determining a research question—the reverse of the scientific method.
We need to step back and understand what it is we are seeking to know? Many people are concerned about the government response to the pandemic in terms of business restrictions, requirements to wear face coverings, or the need to limit group interaction.
These near-term policy and individual decisions seem to be at the top of people’s minds as they affect our daily lives in the now. Other considerations include the opening of schools in August, the complexities that the flu season will bring to the COVID response, and the ability for hospitals to continue to divert resources away from elective surgeries.
Accordingly, we should ask what data to rely on to inform these decisions?
As this virus is new, we do not have much historical data. Fatality rates vary as different populations are affected and medical care advances.
Young people tend to survive the virus more than the elderly, but many still require medical care. Fatality rates are also dependent upon the number of tests.
We do not know how many people have contracted the virus in the United States, as estimates vary greatly. In trying to calculate a true fatality rate we are missing the denominator, leaving us to estimate how fatal the disease is.
We do know that for those who test positive, it is significantly more fatal than influenza and this is particularly true as age and co-morbidities increase.
A commonly reported figure is the number of cases a community has had since the beginning of the outbreak.
While this is a powerful number particularly for comparison across geographic areas, in the fast-changing world of COVID-19, it could be considered historical data. The most relevant research questions today are about navigating the future.
As with numerous modeling that is available, the most important considerations are the rate of hospitalization and the number of current cases.
These data tell us a couple of things. First, the number of current cases is almost certainly a proportion of the actual cases in a community (positivity rate of testing is a gauge of this).
This gives us an idea of how much “community spread” is occurring. A lower positive test rate is a welcome sign, as it indicates more of the positive cases are likely being caught and appropriate action can then be taken to isolate patients.
Face coverings are important for everyone, as none of us can be certain we are not part of the untested, asymptomatic carriers. Even those who were recently tested may have contracted the virus since the test.
Second, the number of hospitalizations is a key consideration as this number gauges the ability of a community to respond in the near term to additional outbreaks.
It also measures the severity of the illness within the community as well as for individuals within the current cases who have tested positive. The number of hospitalizations relative to available resources has been a figure Gov. Abbott and others have consistently used to rationalize state policies.
If there are not any available hospital resources (e.g., beds, nurses, medications, ventilators), people will not receive the necessary level of care and the likelihood of death increases.
Hospitalizations relative to the number of cases is a community level gauge of the severity of the outbreak.
As more young people have the disease, the hospitalization rate may be lower relative to the number of current cases. However, we are seeing an increase of young people in the hospital.
The current cases represent a looming concern for hospitals as the condition of victims of all ages may increase in severity and require hospitalization.
The number of cases indicates the ability for the disease to further spread. Even as people self-isolate or remain in the hospital, the disproportionate number of healthcare providers with COVID-19 shows that the virus is highly contagious and the act of identifying and isolating a carrier does not stop the ability to transmit the virus.
The data discussed above forms the basis for many of the predictive models being cited in media and by decision makers.
These models are important tools, but we also have the necessary data to inform our own decisions within the community.
The COVID-19 pandemic will be studied for years to come. Data will be critical to understanding the long-term implications of the disease as well to look back upon how communities and states responded.
Let’s use this data to take care of one another because these numbers are more than just numbers. This data represents the life and death struggle for our friends, family and members of the community.
Andrew F. Johnson, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of management at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. A native of Stephenville, he served on the Stephenville City Council from 2004-2008 and as Chief of Staff to State Representative J.D. Sheffield from 2013-2015. His research includes the role of society and politics in organizations. He has published several articles on the social impact of COVID-19. He earned his PhD in strategic management from The University of Texas at San Antonio in 2015 and is an alumnus of Tarleton State University.