While Wisconsin’s current status as a COVID hotspot is in no doubt, there are some encouraging signs worth taking note of.
The number of tests being done has increased significantly over the past couple weeks. As Dr. Pritish Tosh of the Mayo Clinics noted last week, the time when testing could have contained the virus is gone. Even unlimited testing and tracing would likely be insufficient to isolate everyone who has the virus. But it remains critical that we have an idea of what the current conditions are, thus high levels of testing are still needed.
That’s also why we’re closely watching the percentage of positive tests. While more testing will, inevitably, find more cases, only increases or decreases in the virus’ spread will have a meaningful effect on the percentage of tests that come back positive.
That’s an area on which we have some concerns. Wisconsin officials had long given a single number for reporting the percentage of positive tests over the preceding week. It was an easy metric for people to understand. Now, though, it’s giving two. One is the percentage of positives by person, while the second is the percentage of tests that come back positive.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says the percent positive by test means “a person is counted each time they have a test performed.” So if a person has several tests after a suspected exposure, each test goes into the count. That drives down the percentage of positive tests, especially since someone may need several negative tests to confirm they do not have the virus after being exposed.
The positive by person figure does not factor in the number of tests. A person who is tested five times counts only once. So the percentage of positive tests is significantly higher.
That’s a defensible stance in terms of science, when all parties discussing the data know what the underlying rules are. It has value when discussing that specific trend. But the general public is not composed of scientists.
The risk is that the difference can confuse people. That’s precisely what happened when the state initially unveiled the change. People were rightfully skeptical when the percentage being discussed went from well into the double digits to right around 9 percent. What the state was offering there was not an apples-to-apples comparison.
The link between confusion and skepticism is clear. When people don’t understand an issue, they look for explanations that do make sense to them. What they land on isn’t always accurate. By suddenly offering a second set of metrics, the state introduced an unnecessary level of confusion.
That wasn’t the only metric changed in recent days. Wisconsin also introduced a new “very high” category for its virus activity assessments. It joined the previously-established system of low, medium and high.
Unlike with the positive test percentage, this change was comparatively easy to understand. It also came with additional information on the trajectory of the virus outbreaks in each county. That’s where we see, perhaps, the first signs of good news for the state in quite some time.
While the largest group of counties show both very high activity and a growing number of cases, a number show no significant changes in the past two weeks. Officials list a small number, including Eau Claire County, with shrinking activity.
And, indeed, the state’s tracking of cases in Eau Claire does show something of a plateau. Several surrounding counties may be showing the same. The changes are small. They aren’t guaranteed and could be reversed easily, but right now small signs of hope are welcome.
Regardless of whether the state’s data and presentation is confusing, the basic advice for people from health officials remains blessedly clear. Wash your hands with soap and water. Cover coughs and sneezes. Wear a mask when you’re out, and stay home if you’re sick.
We’re getting ready to head into what many experts believe could be a significant expansion in the COVID numbers. Cooler weather will push people indoors, where the virus seems to spread most easily. We’re not through with this yet.
It remains essential that people take the primary responsibility for their own health. So, please, follow those very clear instructions we mentioned a couple paragraphs back. If we all do, the numbers will take care of themselves.