INDIANAPOLIS — A CBS4 News review of various data utilized by state and local leaders to determine Indiana’s progress in the fight against the coronavirus and the recovery of its economy reveals a disconnect between the raw numbers, the corrected statistics and the tracking dashboards the experts rely on to make their decisions.
These data discrepancies came to light during Marion County Public Health Director Dr. Virginia Caine’s virtual appearance last week with Mayor Joe Hogsett when it was announced that restaurants would be allowed to reopen this weekend for outdoor dining as Indianapolis continues its slow emergence from the coronavirus economic and social hibernation.
The disconnect and lag time in reporting statistics means there is no way to accurately determine the virus’ prevalence in a community for several days or even weeks leaving officials to base today’s decisions on ballpark estimates while relying on other treatment data to fill in the blanks.
Dr. Caine touted Marion County’s progress in battling back COVID-19, and opening the way for a gradual relaxing of social distancing guidelines, by citing declining virus positivity rates in Indianapolis.
“We want to look at how high, when we were testing people, were people positive for all the tests that we were doing?” she said on May 13th. “If you can see way back on April 8th that we had almost 45% of our testing were positive of all the tests we were doing each day, and then as you can see on May 6th that we had roughly dropped to almost just a little bit above 30%, so we’re seeing the number of positive tests in our communities go down and this probably one of the most critical benchmarks we look at.”
Dr. Caine’s representation of Marion County’s positivity rate in early April was high by both contemporary and corrected reports.
On April 9th, the Indiana State Department of Health reported that for the day before which ended at 11:59 p.m., Marion County showed a 32.3% daily positivity rate (127 positive results from 393 tests) and a 21.2% overall positivity rate (2415 positive results from 11,356 tests).
An inquiry by CBS4 News resulted in this response from Dr. Joe Gibson, Director of Epidemiology at the Marion County Public Health Department:
“The difference you have noted comes from a difference between data from the Regenstrief Institute and data from ISDH. The data Dr. Caine used in her presentation came from the Regenstrief Institute. You can see that the percent positive around April 8 was in the neighborhood of 40%.”
As Dr. Gibson noted, on April 9th, Regenstrief did report a Marion County daily positivity rate of 32.3% (312 positive results from 949 tests) and a 41.9% overall Marion County positivity rate (4636 positive results from 11,055 tests).
However, the updated ISDH dashboard of April 9th, reporting data from the day before, now lists a Marion County daily positivity rate of 26% (203 positive results from 778 tests) and a 17.7% overall Marion County positivity rate (2566 positive results from 14,439 tests).
The ISDH dashboard is updated every 24 hours, so, without manually recording each day’s data, it would be impossible to determine how much the corrected total is in disparity with the numbers that were actually reported that day.
However, CBS4 News has recorded that data on a daily basis for more than two months.
Another statistical disparity in Marion County’s testing numbers was discovered in April.
Over the course of four days, (April 14th, 20th, 22nd and 28th) ISDH reported Marion County recorded negative testing statistics, that is, the day after reported fewer total tests than were claimed the day before.
During those four days, according to ISDH, 1429 Marion County tests disappeared off the books.
At the time, the Marion County Public Health Department attributed those missing tests to paperwork mistakes or residents from surrounding county’s driving to Indianapolis to be tested.
Now, the updated ISDH dashboard reports that on those dates, a total of 2619 tests were conducted and added to the overall tally.
“You identified an issue that appeared to have corrected itself, which is an example, I think, of the system working to address the issues,” said Dr. Shaun Grannis of the Regenstrief Institute. “Everyone involved in this is doing the best work possible. If there are discrepancies or issues that need to be improved, we are working on it.”
Earlier this week, after repeated CBS4 News inquiries regarding the various data disconnects, Dr. Gibson, in an email response, reported, “Since your first message, we have been talking with people at Regenstrief and the state to identify and resolve this discrepancy. We expect this to be resolved this week. We do not know which statistic is correct – the one on the ISDH website, or the one on the Regenstrief dashboard. But the folks involved are all interested and engaged in resolving this – they recognize the importance of this data.”
Repeatedly, Governor Eric Holcomb and Mayor Hogsett have said they are relying on data and science to determine the most responsible path to slow walking the state and local economies back to life after the coronavirus shutdown, and alongside the governor at his virtual briefings form the Statehouse, State Health Director Dr. Kristina Box typically leads off her presentation with a recounting of the latest ISDH coronavirus statistics which are then roundly reported in the media.
Other states, including Georgia and Florida, have experienced data missteps or allegations of downplaying coronavirus infection numbers while attempting to justify the reopening of their economies.
CBS4 News could find no evidence of intentional misreporting of either the state or Marion County data even though the system to record and report such statistics has lagged at times, indicating it may be several days or weeks before we know how pervasive the community infection of COVID-19 is today.
“We can only analyze the data that we receive and we do have a back loading, we have some lag on that information,” said Dr. Grannis. “You can actually see when there is a back loading of tests. They actually attributed those tests, those cases, to those previous days in the same way that they do with deaths. Today if you look at the testing you will see the new tests loaded onto the graph in a backfilled sort of circumstance.”
Dr. Grannis said multiple agencies are attempting to gather and publish accurate coronavirus data from across 92 Indiana counties to chart the state’s progress in battling back the disease that’s so far taken 1764 Hoosier lives, 518 of them in Marion County.
“All the trends continue on a downward trajectory,” he said. “We’re optimistic about what we’re seeing in the number of hospitalizations, in terms of the number of hospital emergency room visits, in terms of the test positive rate. All of the information suggests we continue to head in the right direction and continue to titrate that curve or throttle that curve.”