Officials in Some States Accused of Bungling COVID-19 Infection Statistics

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Tina Nguyen, left, a nurse at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle's International District, takes a nose swab sample from Mindy Balk, an ICHS employee, during walk- and drive-up testing for COVID-19, Friday, May 15, 2020. As testing supplies for coronavirus have become more abundant, the clinic has been able to offer testing to anyone in the community by appointment if they are experiencing symptoms. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

By: Michelle R. Smith, Colleen Long & Jeff Amy (AP) 

Public health officials in some states are accused of bungling coronavirus infection statistics or even using a little sleight of hand to deliberately make things look better than they are.

The risk is that politicians, business owners and ordinary Americans who are making decisions about lockdowns, reopenings and other day-to-day matters could be left with the impression that the virus is under more control than it actually is.

In Virginia, Texas and Vermont, for example, officials said they have been combining the results of viral tests, which show an active infection, with antibody tests, which show a past infection. Public health experts say that can make for impressive-looking testing totals but does not give a true picture of how the virus is spreading.

In Florida, the data scientist who developed the state’s coronavirus dashboard, Rebekah Jones, said this week that she was fired for refusing to manipulate data “to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” Calls to health officials for comment were not immediately returned Tuesday.

In Georgia, one of the earliest states to ease up on lockdowns and assure the public it was safe to go out again, the Department of Public Health published a graph around May 11 that showed new COVID-19 cases declining over time in the most severely affected counties. The daily entries, however, were not arranged in chronological order but in descending order.

For example, the May 7 totals came right before April 26, which was followed by May 3. A quick look at the graph made it appear as if the decline was smoother than it really was. The graph was taken down within about a day.

Georgia state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat with a doctorate in microbiology, said the graph was a “prime example of malfeasance.”

“Sadly it feels like there’s been an attempt to make the data fit the narrative, and that’s not how data works,” she said.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s office denied there was any attempt to deceive the public.

Guidelines from the Trump administration say that before states begin reopening, they should see a 14-day downward trend in infections. However, some states have reopened when infections were still climbing or had plateaued. States have also been instructed to expand testing and contact tracing.

The U.S. has recorded 1.5 million confirmed infections and over 90,000 deaths.

Vermont and Virginia said they stopped combining the two types of tests in the past few days. Still, health officials in Virginia, where Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has eased up on restrictions, said that combining the numbers caused “no difference in overall trends.”

A gym goer is taken into custody outside Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, N.J., Tuesday, May 19, 2020. The gym in New Jersey reopened for business early Monday, defying a state order that shut down nonessential businesses to help stem the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In Texas, where health officials said last week that they were including some antibody results in their testing totals and case counts, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that the numbers were not being commingled. Health officials did not respond to requests for clarification.

Georgia’s Department of Public Health also regularly publishes a graph that shows cases over time, except new infections are not listed on the day they came back positive, which is the practice in many other states. Instead, Georgia lists new cases on the day the patient first reported symptoms.

That practice can shift the timeline of the outbreak and make it appear as if the state is moving past the peak.

Kemp spokesperson Candice Broce insisted that the governor’s office is not telling the department what to do and that officials are not trying to dress up the data to make Kemp look better, saying that “could not be further from the truth.”

As for the May 11 graph, Broce said public health officials were trying to highlight which days had seen the highest peaks of infections. “It was not intended to mislead,” Broce said Tuesday. “It was always intended to be helpful.”

Thomas Tsai, a professor at the Harvard Global Health Institute, said the way Georgia reports data makes it harder to understand what the current conditions are, and he worries that other states may also be presenting data in a way that doesn’t capture the most up-to-date information.

Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said a lot of these cases are not necessarily the result of any attempt to fool the public. For example, she said, states may not have updated information systems that allow them to tell the difference between an antibody test and a viral test.

Still, if states are mixing a lot of testing numbers together, “you’re not going to be able to make good decisions about reopening and about what level of disease you have in the community,” Nuzzo said.

In other developments, t he White House scramble d to defend President Donald Trump’s decision to use the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to fend off the coronavirus. The drug is unproven against the virus, and the president’s move spurred fears that many Americans might start using the medication, which carries potentially fatal side effects.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany emphasized that “any use of hydroxychloroquine has to be in consultation with your doctor.”

More than 4.8 million people worldwide have been confirmed infected by the virus, and about 320,000 deaths have been recorded, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts believe is too low.

Russia and Brazil are now behind only the United States in the number of reported infections, and cases are also spiking in such places as India, South Africa and Mexico.

New hot spots emerged Tuesday in Russia, and the country recorded nearly 9,300 new infections in 24 hours, bringing the total to almost 300,000, about half of them in Moscow. Authorities say over 2,800 people with COVID-19 have died in Russia, a figure some say is surely higher.

President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has sunk to 59%, the lowest in the two decades he has been in power, Russia’s independent pollster Levada Center reported. The plunge reflects growing mistrust and uncertainty among Russians, Levada said.

Some experts argue Russian authorities have been listing chronic illnesses as the cause of death for many who tested positive for the virus. Officials angrily deny manipulating statistics, saying Russia’s low death toll reflects early preventive measures and broad screening.

ECONOMIC FALLOUT

Facing the gravest U.S. economic crisis in decades, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell offered Congress contrasting views Tuesday of what the government’s most urgent priority should be.

Striking a theme frequently pushed by President Trump, Mnuchin warned that prolonged business shutdowns would pose long-term threats to the economy, from widespread bankruptcies for small businesses to long-term unemployment for millions of Americans.

“There is risk of permanent damage,” Mnuchin said.

Powell, by contrast, stressed, as he has in recent weeks, that the nation is gripped by an economic shock “without modern precedent” and that Congress must consider providing further financial aid soon to support states, localities, businesses and individuals to prevent an even deeper recession.

“What Congress has done to date has been remarkably timely and forceful,” Powell said. “But we need to step back and ask, ’Is it enough?”

Their points of emphasis reflect the contours of a debate occurring across the country, among individuals, business people and political leaders, about when and under what circumstances the economy should reopen and what further help the government can or should provide.

Mnuchin and Powell offered their views at an oversight hearing of the Senate Banking Committee at which members of both parties questioned them about when their agencies will distribute more of the emergency aid that Congress provided in late March to struggling small businesses and households.

Powell said that a highly anticipated lending program the Fed is creating for small businesses should be operating by the end of the month. And in a turnaround, Mnuchin said the Treasury is now prepared to absorb some losses in that program, which is funded by Treasury. Doing so could enable the Fed to take on further risk with the program and help more struggling companies.

During the hearing, Mnuchin clashed sharply with Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts over the administration’s support for a phased reopening of the economy and over its reluctance to require that all companies that receive government aid keep their workers on the payroll.

Brown charged that the Trump administration was risking the lives of lower-income workers by supporting reopening efforts and was doing so simply to boost financial markets. He asserted that the administration hasn’t done enough to protect front-line workers — by, for example, ramping up viral testing — even as most states start allowing restaurants, stores and gyms to reopen.

“The administration wants to put more workers at risk to boost the stock market,” Brown said.

“Your characterization is unfair,” Mnuchin responded.

The hearing was the first in a planned series of quarterly oversight sessions focused on spending programs authorized in the $2 trillion federal relief package that is overseen by the Treasury Department and Fed. They include the $660 billion small business lending facility, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as $46 billion in grants to airlines and $454 billion to support the Fed’s lending.

The Fed announced in March that it would set up the Main Street Lending Program, which will provide up to $600 billion in loans to medium-sized businesses that are too large to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program. The Treasury has provided $75 billion, drawn from the $454 billion set aside by Congress, to cover any losses from the Main Street program.

Mnuchin said that under some scenarios the Treasury could lose some or all of that $75 billion.

“Our intention is that we intend to take some losses,” he said.

The Fed has also said it will buy debt issued by state and local governments, which are facing plummeting revenues as the viral outbreak has eliminated tens of millions of jobs and slashed income tax and sales tax revenue. At the same time, states and cities are facing much higher health care costs.

Yet the Fed’s program will make it easier for governments to borrow in the municipal bond market. Powell, under questioning, said that states might need more direct help from the federal government to avoid laying off workers, with the unemployment rate, at 14.7%, already the highest since the Great Depression.

Mnuchin came under sharp questioning from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who charged that he wasn’t doing enough to force companies that receive aid from the Main Street Lending program, as well as other aid provided by the Fed and Treasury, to keep workers on their payrolls.

The senator pressed Mnuchin to ensure that the loans include that requirement. When Mnuchin declined to commit to that change, Warren said, “You’re boosting your Wall Street buddies.”

Mnuchin told Warren that the legislation providing the funds includes restrictions on top executive pay and on company dividends and stock buybacks.

Mnuchin said in prepared testimony that so far, the paycheck program has processed more than 4.2 million loans for over $530 billion “to keep tens of millions of hardworking Americans on the payroll.” The loans need not be repaid as long as the borrowing business uses 75% of the money to cover workers’ paychecks.

But many small companies say the terms are too onerous. To have the loans forgiven, they must rehire all their employees within eight weeks of receiving the funds, even if they have little business or work for them to do. These companies argue that they might have to lay off their workers again at the end of the eight weeks — and may have little money left to help ramp up when business does return.

Mnuchin, pressed about those issues and about opening the loan program to more nonprofits, said his department was considering making changes.

One frustrated recipient of the small-business lending program, Brooke Sheldon, has so many questions about repaying her loan that she isn’t sure she wants to use the money.

Sheldon, a New York-based event planner whose corporate events this spring and New England weddings this summer have been canceled, is troubled by the rules governing the use of the loan money: In order for the government to forgive their loans, companies must use 75% of it for payroll. The remaining 25% is limited to expenses for rent, mortgage interest and utilities.

If Sheldon has to repay the loan, the first bill would be due in November, and she doesn’t expect her company, Lilybrooke Events, to have generated income by then.

“If I use the money for rent and then have to pay the loan back when I still don’t have income — especially not additional income to pay for back payments — I would rather have closed my office,” she said.

 

 

 

 

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