For The Record

Past errors might cause state to delay COVID-19 data release for fact-check

By: - May 21, 2020 8:55 pm

Gov. Brian Kemp said at Thursday Capitol press conference his decision making – which was highly scrutinized nationally when Georgian became one of the earlier states to reopen close-contact businesses – is based on more than a single source of data. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp acknowledged recent errors in the state’s public health data reporting but asked for the public’s understanding at a press briefing held Thursday at the state Capitol.

The state Department of Public Health said in a tweet earlier this week that, due to a processing error, it had inadvertently included 231 serologic test results among the positive cases of COVID-19. Serologic tests are blood tests that determine whether someone has previously contracted the virus.

Correcting that caused a drop in positive cases, but it raised questions and doubts about the reliability of the data presented to the public and whether it reflected reality in Georgia.

The department then acknowledged Wednesday that it had been adding antibody tests – which test for past infection – that inflated the tests counts by 57,000, or about 14% of the total results at the time. The governor’s office asked that the results be removed from the total count.

“I just want people to know they can be confident in the data but also, look, we’re not perfect,” Kemp said Thursday. “We’ve made mistakes. When we do that, we’ll own that, change it and make sure people are aware of that.”

Kemp said there’s a “whole team of people” deciding what information to include – or not include – on the state DPH website.

Kemp said there was a review underway on whether to delay the release of information to allow more time to double check the data.

He added that his decision making – which was highly scrutinized nationally when Georgian became one of the earlier states to reopen close-contact businesses – is based on more than a single source of data.

For example, Kemp announced Thursday that 919 patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 – a drop of about 38% since May 1.

“Our website or data here or there should not be the holy grail,” said Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey. “That should not be the only thing we look for. It’s just one piece, just one tool, that we use.”

Toomey said the state’s efforts to ramp up contact tracing, and the individual interviews involved in that process, were also key to fleshing out state officials’ understanding of COVID-19’s reach in the state.

Toomey said tracking the novel coronavirus is an “unprecedented ask” of any public health surveillance system, with the state trying to quickly collect data from multiple sources in the middle of a pandemic.

“This is a time when we need the public’s trust and we won’t have the public’s trust unless we can assure them that these data are accurate, timely and do represent what is going on in the community,” Toomey said.

Likewise, the governor asked for understanding.

“They are taking massive amounts of data from countless sources, putting them into accessible format under a global spotlight – all at break-neck speed,” Kemp said.

“Please afford them some patience and please steer clear of personal attacks,” he said. “We are all in this fight together.”

As of Thursday evening, there were 40,663 positive cases of COVID-19 in Georgia, and 1,775 deaths were attributed to the virus. Nearly 408,000 tests had been administered.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.