The CDC's Major Coronavirus Testing Mistake That May Affect You
Turns out that coronavirus data in a number of states may be off—way off.
As states look to reopen from the nearly nationwide lockdown designed to stem the outbreak of the coronavirus, testing data has become a critical component to those decisions. But a recent report from The Atlantic details how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a critical error in combining distinct testing data, which the government's disease-fighting agency has since admitted is true.
According to The Atlantic's report, and confirmed to the outlet by CDC officials, the public health agency is conflating viral tests—which determine if one is positive for the coronavirus at the time of testing—and antibody tests—which determine if one's immune system has built antibodies to fight COVID-19.
In the case of antibody tests, the results determine if someone has recovered from COVID-19 or had it and was asymptomatic. As The Atlantic reports, it's akin to looking at a "rear-view mirror" of one's health. The antibody testing data is a crucial metric, though the test has a higher incidence of false positive results.
While both the viral and antibody test results are critical metrics for medical and public health experts to consider, they measure very different things. But the CDC is combining the two sets of data into one very meaningless metric called "total tests" that renders all of it rather meaningless. The CDC's error has the ill effect of compromising crucial metrics that state governors rely upon in reopening their states.
Here's how The Atlantic put it:
This is not merely a technical error. States have set quantitative guidelines for reopening their economies based on these flawed data points.
Several states—including Pennsylvania, the site of one of the country's largest outbreaks, as well as Texas, Georgia, and Vermont—are blending the data in the same way.
Upon learning about this mix-up, Harvard professor Ashish Jha exclaimed to The Atlantic, "You've got to be kidding me." He added: "How could the CDC make that mistake? This is a mess." By combining the two types of results, the CDC has made them both "uninterpretable," Jha said.
In April, the CDC presented guidelines for states' to follow upon reopening, many of which were based on data trends, including testing results. If the testing data is unreliable, however, then elected officials are making potentially life-threatening decisions based on information that is effectively useless. And if the data trends are not valid, then the potential safety of citizens returning to some sort of normal may be just as illusory as well. And for states that are seeing case numbers rise, check out 5 States Where Coronavirus Cases Are Rising Sharply.