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Mulhall column: Reading the COVID-19 tea leaves

Mitch Mulhall
Mitch Mulhall

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which in these parts was in early March, I have found the data-gathering practices on actual cases, hospitalizations, and deaths unhelpful.

Everyone has.

In full disclosure, I had to take college algebra twice to get a passing grade.

This is no slight on Mrs. Haines or GSHS, but you may want to take with a grain of salt anything I might write related even obliquely to math (unless, of course, it has to do with the Electoral College, where numerical reason always gets offended and leaves the room in a snit).

You’d think that in the 21st Century, U.S. data gathering and reporting would be spit-polished by ubiquitous technologies like iPhones and wireless networks, but alas, the “garbage-in-garbage-out” proposition still applies, perhaps now more than ever.

Despite my questionable math background, early on in the pandemic I dumped TV news in favor of Bing’s COVID-19 Tracker to get a clearer picture about where and how quickly the virus was spreading.

However, I soon gave up on Bing for some of the same reasons I soured on TV news.

Unlike the news, Bing’s COVID-19 Tracker allocates a spot for recoveries. Like the news, they don’t put a number to it … usually.

Even as I write, the map lists no recoveries in Colorado and most other states.

I thought maybe recovery data gets protected by HIPPA or the Fourth Amendment, and perhaps some of it does, but some states do cite recoveries.

Wyoming, for example, showed 596 cases earlier this week, 391 of which had recovered. Colorado, on the other hand, shows no recoveries but dutifully updates the total number of cases daily, which on Wednesday exceeded 17,000.

In fairness, KDVR did cite Colorado recovery statistics from CDPHE — for about three days. KDVR still leads every broadcast with a fuss over cumulative cases, hospitalizations and fatalities, but apart from an occasional human interest piece on a patient’s hospital departure, there’s little mention of recoveries.

It’s not just the absence of recovery data that makes data on COVID-19 unhelpful.

Last month I watched as a news anchor unashamedly reported on live TV that a spike in COVID fatalities was partially due to previously unreported deaths attributed to the virus. The gist of the story was something like, “CDPHE found numerous COVID-19 fatalities from previous weeks, so they have been added to today’s number.”

It’s like they had no idea what to do, so they plugged them into the nearest slot.

The tendency of fatality reporting to gin up foreboding has been well-understood since the days of Walter Cronkite, but this kind of sloppy data gathering turns a new leaf. Yet, Colorado and communities like Glenwood Springs base decisions on whether to end mask-wearing ordinances and lift restaurant restrictions on this data.

Modeling based on solid data — testing, active cases, hospitalizations, recoveries and mortality — strikes me as a valid basis for making decisions about precautionary measures, but that validity unravels if you ignore recoveries, dismiss the temporal integrity of deaths, and focus mainly on cumulative active cases, hospitalizations and fatalities.

That focus yields one grim picture.

“Holy moly, Myrtle,” you end up saying as you smack your forehead with the palm of your hand, “There’s over 17,000 COVID cases in Colorado!”

View that number through the prism of recoveries and a different picture emerges.

Of course, we don’t see that picture because somewhere along the way someone decided recoveries don’t matter as much as active cases and fatalities, or something like that.

Last month Gov. Jared Polis referenced the use of cellphone metadata to analyze human movement and determine the efficacy of stay-at-home orders. He could certainly get his hands on recovery data if he wanted it — Fourth Amendment rights or not.

So, listen carefully, friends, whenever someone trots out COVID-19 statistics. The vision of what a hopeful future looks like is often in what the voices of public trust don’t say.

Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com.


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