Daily News readers have been demanding, and deserving, an explanation about why the newspaper stopped publishing information about COVID-19 in graphical form as it had done daily since March.
Here it is. The various charts, graphs and lists the paper had been publishing were derived from information the Galveston County Health District was reporting each day. That information followed a more-or-less stable, logical progression. Numbers reported for May 10, just as a hypothetical example, didn’t change on May 11, or June 15, which allowed the newspaper to each day update the graphs with new information, without worrying about the previously reported information.
That all changed in September when the health district adopted a new reporting format and began to account for backlogged information it recently had received from the state.
Newspaper staff members noticed many numbers had changed retrospectively, and in many cases dramatically, by dozens and more than that at times.
As the paper reported Wednesday, for example, from May 17 to July 4, the health district underreported the number of new positive cases by more than 1,300.
Likewise, during the week of June 21, 1,472 people tested positive for the virus, according to the health district’s new data based on when the tests were collected. At the time, however, the district reported only 1,028 new cases, an undercount of 444.
The situation flipped in July, when the health district began receiving backlogged test information. Between July 5 and Sept. 12, the district reported 1,168 backlogged tests collected at least a week before they were reported.
During the week of Sept. 6, for example, at least 316 tests reported were a week or more old.
That week illustrated the deeper problem created by reporting the spike of backlogged cases. Including the old tests, which were not identified as being old, the positivity rate in Galveston County was 8.9 percent.
Accounting for the backlog, however, the positivity rate was only 3 percent.
The consequence of all that was charts and graphs the paper had published for seven months were just wrong and reported nothing very relevant about the state of the pandemic.
That’s not any sort of admission of guilt by the newspaper or a criticism of the health district. Both were accurately reporting the best information available at the time. The problem was the best available information wasn’t very good.
The only option for the newspaper was to pull the graphics and attempt to regroup, which has taken much longer than expected.
To resume publishing the charts and graphs as before is impossible, for practical purposes. It would require access to the health district’s data, which the paper doesn’t have, and would require going back over and recalculating each of the previous days’ reports back to March to account for retrospective changes and establish a baseline on which to build.
We could do that once and update it once a week or so, perhaps, provided we had access to the data.
The newspaper has requested through the Texas Public Information Act copies of the two databases the health district is using to assemble its daily reports. The district has said it would cost almost $4,000 to scrub those data sets of information that can’t be disclosed under medical privacy laws.
Health district employees, who are, we believe, attempting to accommodate the request, warn the scrubbed data might not include even relevant dates, which of course would render the data useless for plotting trends over time.
As it stands now, we know the health district’s numbers are changing respectively each day, but we don’t know exactly what time frames those changes were applied to. We can’t produce credible graphics without that information.
The editors believe and have argued before that health officials at every level have been misusing medical privacy laws to withhold all sorts of information to which the public should have access. We’re not alone in that belief. State Rep. Todd Hunter made the same argument in a commentary the newspaper published in June.
We believe the health district’s assertion that disclosing the dates COVID-19 tests were taken, or the dates results were known, is an example of overreaching use of medical privacy laws.
Be that as it may, we’ll continue talking to the health district with the goal of getting reasonable access to reliable information.
Until then, we aren’t going to repeat information we aren’t confident about.
A truth deeper than even the most solid statistical data applies here, however.
There is no salvation from COVID-19 in endless sifting of discrete data.
The broad truth is that cases are sharply down. They peaked in early July at an average of something like 324 a day and are now averaging about 16 a day at last report.
That doesn’t mean you can’t get it; you can, and we should all continue to be careful by masking when appropriate and keeping social distance when possible.
The truth is that after more than seven months and almost 12,000 confirmed cases in the county, 148 people have died, a case mortality rate of about 1.2 percent.
The actual mortality rate is probably much lower because many cases very likely were never confirmed.
We know that all those unfortunate victims had underlying health conditions that contributed to their deaths.
So the truth is, if you have one of those well-known health conditions, you should be especially careful.
Doing those things will do us all more good than even the most precise data analysis can.
• Michael A. Smith