Texas, Virginia, and Vermont are being criticised by public-health experts for mixing up their test data, producing far more impressive numbers

Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesGov. Greg Abbott of Texas with COVID-19 test-collection vials at a press conference held at Arlington Emergency Management on March 18 in Arlington, Texas.
  • Texas, Virginia, and Vermont have been accused of mishandling their coronavirus testing data in ways that inflate the perceived testing capacity but make the results functionally meaningless for making decisions.
  • The states all combined totals for two types of tests: those for active infections and those for past infections (measured via antibodies).
  • As the Associated Press reported, other states have been slammed for their handling of data: A Florida official said she was fired to refusing to manipulate the figures, while Georgia was under fire over misleading graphs.
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Texas, Virginia, and Vermont have been accused of presenting their coronavirus data in misleading ways that inflate the scale of their testing programs while making it impossible to identify the latest trends.

The Associated Press reported that officials in Virginia, Texas, and Vermont had acknowledged combining the figures for two separate types of tests.

The first was the test for finding whether people were currently infected with the coronavirus; the second was the one looking for antibodies, which are found in people who had the virus but are no longer sick.

Combining the two results could help shed light on the total number of infections (assuming people are not double-counted) but makes it harder for officials to make informed decisions about easing restrictions based on the latest number of active infections.

Experts told the AP that adding the figures together also made it look as if states were doing more testing for active cases than they actually were.

Jennifer Nuzzo, from the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, said presenting the data in that way wasn’t necessarily malicious but had important consequences.

She told the AP that with that system “you’re not going to be able to make good decisions about reopening and about what level of disease you have in the community.”

Houston coronavirus patient texas lockdownCarolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty ImagesA patient at a Texas hospital on May 6.

The AP reported that officials in Vermont and Virginia had since stopped combining the figures in this way.

Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, said the correction had caused “no difference in overall trends.”

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, on Monday said the state was not at that point mixing together its figures, but state health officials said last week that they had been treating the data this way.

The Atlantic had previously reported on the presentation of data in Virginia, which Ashish Jha, the director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, said made it impossible to use the data to make decisions: “It is terrible. It messes up everything.”

The AP’s report comes after separate accusations of data manipulation in Florida and Georgia.

Georgia governor brian kemp coronavirus maskRon Harris/AP PhotoGov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, centre, at a tour of a massive temporary hospital at the Georgia World Congress Centre on April 16 in Atlanta.

Rebekah Jones, a top data researcher in Florida who developed the state’s coronavirus dashboard, said she was fired after refusing to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

Georgia also came under fire when it published a graph of coronavirus cases in descending order rather than in chronological order, giving the false appearance that the outbreak was easing.

The graph was deleted in less than a day, the AP reported. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s office denied trying to mislead people.

Candice Broce, his communications director, tweeted: “Our mission failed. We apologise. It is fixed.”

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