- Georgia lifted its shelter-in-place order April 30, and state public health officials have since released optimistic-looking data on new coronavirus cases and deaths.
- But it’s still too early to draw the conclusion that reopening states won’t worsen COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Georgia’s Department of Public Health has faced criticism over publishing inaccurate or misleading data in recent weeks, and Gov. Brian Kemp’s office has apologized over the mishaps.
- But even with accurate data, there can be a weeks-long delay between the time when a person contracts the virus, when they get a positive test result, and when that test result is actually reported to state health authorities.
- Experts have said that coronavirus case counts don’t show what the outbreaks look like in realtime — they’re a snapshot of what the outbreaks looked like two weeks earlier.
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Just over two weeks after Georgia ended its shelter-in-place order, preliminary data from public health officials on the number of new coronavirus cases in the state has prompted some to claim victory over the outbreak.
Though it’s tempting to celebrate any optimistic-looking data as a sign that reopening states can help local economies bounce back without worsening COVID-19 outbreaks, it’s still very early to draw such a conclusion.
Data published by the Georgia Department of Public Health showed a decline in both confirmed cases and deaths in the time since the state started reopening certain businesses on April 24 and ending its shelter-in-place order on April 30.
But the state also warned that the data is “preliminary,” and that the “data during the reporting period may be incomplete due to the lag in time between when the case was tested and/or reported and submitted to the Georgia DPH for reporting purposes.”
So, in many cases, there could be a roughly two-week delay — or even longer — between a person contracting the virus, and their positive test result getting reported to state health authorities.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronavirus’ incubation period can last up to 14 days, though research has shown that the vast majority of coronavirus patients who develop symptoms do so within 11.5 days of infection.
Then, once a person gets tested, further delays may occur between the test, the notification of a positive result, and the reporting of that positive result to public health authorities.
Furthermore, Georgia’s data so far has been criticized for being misleading, inaccurate, or filled with errors, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution has reported. Gov. Brian Kemp’s office even apologized for one graph that incorrectly suggested that new coronavirus cases in the hardest-hit counties had dropped each day for two weeks. In fact, there was no such trend.
Rather, the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s analysis of Georgia’s data has shown more of a plateau in new coronavirus cases in the state, rather than a decline.
Experts have explained that current coronavirus case counts are not representations of how severe the outbreaks are in that very moment — rather, the case counts show how severe the outbreaks were roughly two weeks earlier.
Therefore, Georgia’s optimistic-looking data from recent weeks may be reflecting the success of the state’s lockdown measures, rather than reflecting the success of lifting those measures.
As for deaths, there’s an even greater lag in the data since a patient may not actually die of the virus until weeks after they first contracted it, and a further lag could occur between the time of the patient’s death and the moment the death certificate is processed for reporting.
The CDC has said the reporting lag for deaths could range from one to eight weeks, or more, “depending on the jurisdiction, age, and cause of death,” though the CDC also says the average lag is closer to one or two weeks.
The amount of testing is also crucial to consider in the number of reported cases, as positive cases cannot be detected without widespread testing.
Though Georgia has ramped up their testing, and now promises that anyone in the state who requests a test can get one, it’s far from certain that the state’s current testing capacity is accurately depicting the extent of the coronavirus outbreak.
For instance, between April 30 and May 6 — the first week the state reopened — Georgia averaged 8,600 tests per day. Experts from Harvard University’s Global Health Institute said that average was far below the estimated minimum of 25,979 daily tests needed by May 15 to contain its outbreak, according to a data analysis by NPR.
Georgia may have managed to simultaneously tamp down its coronavirus outbreak and reopen its economy — but it will take more time for the data to reflect that conclusion.