2 things to keep in mind when reviewing this week's COVID-19 numbers

Molly Gamble (Twitter) - Print  | 

Consider Presidents Day and a catastrophic winter storm when reviewing this week's declining indicators of COVID-19 transmission, according to analysis from The COVID Tracking Project. 

Numbers continue to move in the right direction. U.S. COVID-19 cases have declined for six weeks, hospitalizations have dropped for five weeks, and deaths have fallen for four weeks. This week's average number of hospitalizations is just under the average recorded during the high points of the April and July hospitalization surges.

While key indicators are falling, the decline in cases and deaths appears to have slowed this week. COVID Tracking Project analysts said they do not believe this represents a true plateau. 

Instead, Presidents Day and the beginning of a major winter storm that compromised power for millions of Americans have slowed case reporting. 

"As we've seen with other holidays and storms, these kinds of disruptions produce a predictable series of reporting artifacts: first an artificial drop, then an artificial rise. We should always look for confounding factors before interpreting the data as suggesting a change in the direction of the pandemic — and in this week's data, we found them," the analysts write.

Those artificially low numbers from last week's disruptions will, by contrast, make the declines in this week's case and death counts look smaller. As backlogs roll in, daily numbers will also look as though they're reversing direction. Even hospitalization numbers, which are usually less sensitive to holiday reporting slowdowns, appear to have wobbled — likely the result of small reductions in reporting and small reductions in the number of people who sought care at hospitals during major storms. 

"This brings us to a crucial point that news summaries frequently get wrong: the deaths states and territories report on a given day do not represent people who died on that day. Reported deaths lag behind cases by two to three weeks on average, and many reported deaths actually took place substantially earlier. When reported cases rose during previous surges, deaths lagged weeks behind. The same is true now, as cases decline," project analysts write. 

Bottom line: Indicators suggest that far fewer people died of COVID-19 this week than in previous weeks because cases and hospitalizations continue to drop.

"But we won't see those smaller death numbers for weeks to come — and probably for more than two or three weeks," according to project analysts.

The COVID Tracking Project is a volunteer organization launched by The Atlantic and dedicated to collecting and publishing the data tracking COVID-19's spread in the United States. Its analysis suggesting the third surge is based on the official data it compiles from 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. 


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