If there’s data, you know I’m gonna spreadsheet.
And there’s COVID-19 data available.
In another life, maybe I would have gone into statistics. I love a good data set and being able to work with it, chart it, analyze trends.
Most reporters aren’t numbers people. A typical reporter was a person strong in English in school. Me, I was the opposite. I hated English class and my strengths were math and science. I originally went to Purdue to become a chemical engineer, not a journalist.
So, as I’ve written before, data-driven journalism is one of my strengths and joys. Data isn’t the story — numbers are just numbers, after all — but proper analysis of data can be useful to reveal important trends. Trying to measure something is the first step toward being able to explain it.
And, as we’re now all in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, data is something that’s available.
Each day I’ve been producing what I’ve called internally as the “daily update” story, which recaps each day’s 10 a.m. release from the Indiana State Department of Health about coronavirus.
The daily report has evolved as the coronavirus outbreak across the state has evolved, but the state health department is daily providing three numbers — the number of positive cases identified in Indiana, the number of deaths, and the number of tests processed.
As such, I’ve taken to daily recording that data into a public spreadsheet available for everyone to view here by going to bit.ly/3axa24Z
Numbers are great, but they can be hard to consume by themselves. As such, I’ve also turned that data into a couple of graphs to help people visualize the numbers.
Now, let me explain a couple important items about this data:
• Cases and deaths — I’ve recently updated these columns as “total” cases and deaths. The number of cases and deaths the state is releasing are straight totals from the time it started collecting to today.
It’s not a count of current numbers. As we know, some people recover from COVID-19. To this point, it’s not been indicated that the state is subtracting numbers if someone recovers or when a person dies.
Why is that important? In the accompanying graphs, the numbers are increasing. As long as these are totals, they will always be increasing. Now, long-range, if the virus slows, the slope of that upward curve will reduce, showing progress. But there’s a better way to chart the current situation. See the next item:
• New cases — Last week, I began charting the number of new cases, simply by subtracting today’s total from yesterday’s. This is a much more valuable measure of the current state of the virus and whether Indiana is “flattening the curve.”
Right now, the number of new cases has leveled a bit over the last three days after daily increases at an accelerating rate. That’s a good sign, but it’s too early to celebrate.
Whether the leveling is a mark that social distancing efforts are having an effect or are simply a limitation of the state’s testing ability is yet to be determined.
• Infections per test — This isn’t a terribly useful stat in my spreadsheet, but one I thought would be interesting. Not everyone who is tested is infected, so I wanted to see what percentage of people who are tested are shown positive.
As I said, this isn’t terribly useful beyond being interesting. Testing is in short supply, so naturally it’s being given mostly to people who are highly suspected of having the virus.
If a widespread testing program was put in place in an effort to better identify where the virus is present, this percentage would likely drop significantly because reasonably more healthy people would be tested and shown negative.
• Deaths per infection — This isn’t the most solid stat, but I wanted to chart it. How many people the state has ID’d with COVID-19 died?
Skeptics out there have tried to downplay COVID-19 by comparing it to seasonal influenza. By all accounts of health officials, coronavirus has a significantly higher mortality rate than flu.
This percentage gives a little idea of how deadly the virus is. The main weakness here is that it only takes into account people who have been identified as having the virus. As we know, testing is limited, so many people may have the virus with mild or no symptoms and are not being counted.
This set is not a very accurate rate in that sense, but it does give a glimpse of at least how lethal the virus is to a narrow population, namely, those who do test positive.
• What does the data say now? — On my reading, the data from the daily updates says Indiana is still in the early stages of this epidemic. Infections and deaths are accelerating, not slowing.
Calls to reopen the nation sooner than later, at least in Indiana’s case, would seem ill-advised at this point.
Until such a time the data shows Indiana’s case load slowing significantly or decreasing, social distancing recommendations and restrictions should probably be kept in place.