As I have written previously, many in the news media and the government often fail to present and interpret data correctly.
With very few exceptions, such as the careful reporting by a handful of reporters at the Los Angeles Times and Noozhawk in Santa Barbara, this is proving to be especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the fact that it has no bearing on our health-care system capacity, the media track the pandemic primarily by reporting the inexorable rise in the total number of confirmed cases. Instead of carefully analyzing trends in the data, the media constantly report on “surges” or “spikes” that they claim have just started or will soon be coming.
They are wrong on both counts. How do I know this? It’s all in the data. You just have to look at it correctly.
Since the inception of the pandemic, California has been reporting two statistics on a daily basis (with certain gaps):
» New daily confirmed cases
» New fatalities
Although the state and Santa Barbara County have started publishing hospitalization data (in response to calls that I and others made for the state to start doing so), it is most useful for assessing the trajectory of the virus in the first half of April. (I have consistently predicted the virus will decelerate by April 9.)
So today, as we look back on March, the best way to chart the trajectory of the outbreak is to look at the daily increase in both new cases and fatalities compared to the trajectory of an uncontrolled virus. The charts below use five-day moving averages to plot the actual trajectory of the virus (to minimize the impact of gaps in the state’s data reporting).
What conclusions can we draw from this simple chart?
First, the virus has not been spreading at an uncontrolled rate since at least March 14. We began flattening the curve then.
Second, much of the flattening achieved in March was the result of the public health measures put in place before Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order was issued on March 19.
As I have written previously, it is critical to recognize that the officially reported daily new case data lag the date of infection by roughly 7-14 days in most cases. This means a confirmed case reported on March 24, for example, documents an infection that occurred between March 10 and 17 — well before the stay-at-home order was in place.
Third, there has not been a “surge” or “spike” in coronavirus cases. To the contrary, our curve is flattening dramatically and may be demonstrably flat (or bent) within a few short days (as I have repeatedly predicted based on the results of models I began running 10 days ago).
Because of the variability in testing and new case reporting, many epidemiologists have suggested the most accurate way to chart the course of the pandemic in California is to examine the fatality rate. Accordingly, the chart below provides the five-day moving average for fatalities since the pandemic began.
The most important thing to understand in reviewing this chart is that a fatality reported today likely reflects an infection that occurred 15-25 days ago (this is why fatalities will likely peak five to 10 days after the other data show that we have bent the curve).
Critically for today, this means that sometime between March 1 and March 10, the pandemic began to lose steam. Since then, the virus has spread at a much lower rate, which likely corresponds to the implementation of decentralized public health measures beginning on March 8.
In short, the slow and steady rate of increase in daily fatalities confirms the conclusions drawn above from the case data: We started flattening the curve before the stay-at-home order was issued and there has been no “surge” or “spike” in fatalities.
I will have much more to write in the next few days about what this means for California going forward, especially if the data confirm my predictions that we will have flattened and potentially bent the curve.
But as you start your week, please do so knowing that we are absolutely on the right track in California and have been for weeks. Things are getting better, not worse. The story of California’s success is already written in the data.
Be safe. Stay healthy.
— Brian Goebel served as a senior official in the Treasury and Homeland Security departments following 9/11. Since 2005, he has founded successful consulting and analytics firms serving governments around the globe; launched 2040 Matters, a nonpartisan public policy blog dedicated to restoring the American Dream for younger Americans; and was elected to the Montecito Water District Board of Directors in 2018. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.