Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday April 1, 2020
Breaking down the COVID-19 numbers
In a little more than two months, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, raced around the world and turned a handful of known cases to more than three quarters of a million, with at least 36,000 lives lost – reported figures that the scientific and health communities widely agree are too low.
The spreading virus has pushed numerous countries to scramble to lock down cities, shutter non-essential businesses, and close their borders to all but their own citizens, adopting some of the extraordinary measures executed in China that might have previously been unthinkable elsewhere.
Researchers and armchair epidemiologists alike are analyzing the trove of data to create models, find patterns and clues on whether curves are being flattened, which country is on a faster or slower trajectory, why death rates and ages vary, what measures seemed to work, and when the pandemic might end.
The flood of numbers and questions they raise can be overwhelming for the average person trying to make sense of the data.
Epidemiologists and an infectious disease expert who spoke with CTVNews.ca said it was too early to make predictions or draw conclusions from the data, but stressed the importance of understanding the context surrounding the numbers.
While most of the focus has been on the daily tally of new cases, epidemiologists say that other data points are more useful.
Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg-based epidemiologist with two decades of experience interpreting and developing protocols for gathering and analyzing health data, said the daily focus on new cases can be a distraction and spark unnecessary panic.
“[The public was] not listening to the information. They were in a store with 1,000 people at Costco buying toilet paper” when that was the last place they should be, said Carr.
The total number of tests administered, infections, hospitalizations, intensive care patients, and deaths are all key indicators for different reasons, explained Erin Strumpf, an epidemiologist and associate professor at McGill University.
“It’s more about the rate of change in those numbers than it is about the actual numbers on a given day,” she said.
The mortality and hospitalization rates – and whether they are increasing or decreasing over time – gives more context and balance to the data, Carr noted.
“You should never just look at one piece of information,” Carr said.
“I have said from the beginning, when we increase our testing capacity, you would quickly see an increase in cases… we’re getting more of an accurate denominator, an accurate representation of the number of people with the illness.” (CTV)