Editorial: County health departments need additional test data

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 7, 2020

There’s clear evidence that COVID-19 cases are growing at their fastest pace yet in Rowan County. That a key part of data is missing, though, doesn’t help the discord over fundamental facts of the virus.

Through no fault of its own, the Rowan County Health Department does not have an accurate count of all negative test results, which makes determinations harder about whether increased testing is to blame for more cases. As of Monday, 18.17% of tests for COVID-19 were positive, according to county statistics. If the county had all negative tests results, that would be a horrifyingly high percentage of positives, especially since the statewide number is just 9%.

But county officials have said for months now they are not getting all the negatives because there is not a requirement for everyone to do so. They are trying to remedy the issue and have been meticulous about trying to get data right. When county staff recently reviewed old data, Brown said things didn’t add up. As a result, staff needed to double check a swath of previous numbers and update them to the best of their ability.

Not having all negative results means a person can look at a chart of daily increases and say testing has cause of more cases. But that’s an assumption without knowing whether there are negatives unaccounted for in previous weeks.

Another person could look at the case positive rate and come to an opposite conclusion. Two weeks ago, the percentage positive rate was 17.98% — slightly lower than what it was Monday. So, it’s reasonable to say increased testing alone isn’t to blame for the recent rise in cases. If tests are coming back positive at higher rates, it’s an indication more people are getting COVID-19. If a smaller percentage is coming back positive but the number of positives is still increasing, testing is the cause.

To be clear, positive and negative tests are not the only indicators of the outbreak. Hospitalizations, for example, are just one below a previous record of 25, which occurred June 17. Younger people are testing positive more often, too. On Monday, the average age of people testing positive was 43.5. Recoveries are coming at a faster pace. While Monday produced the second-largest increase in cases, Thursday produced the second-largest increase in recoveries — 61.

There are ways to view statistics optimistically and pessimistically, but it’s most important that statistics provide clarity about the true state of the outbreak. Having clarity will help guide public policy decisions and, perhaps, help mitigate vicious disagreement about basic facts. 

For that reason, state officials should ask those conducting tests to submit all negatives in addition to information about the county in which testing was conducted and the place of residence for the person tested. That information should then be provided via the state’s website or to county health departments for public release.