Cases, cases, cases! The problem of focusing on case counts to the detriment of more important metrics.

Posted on July 26, 2020

From the start of the COVID-19 epidemic in Wuhan, China, to the eventual pandemic around the globe, media and politicians have obsessed over various single factor analyses to the detriment of Americans’ health and well-being. A prime example of this is the incessant focus on case counts, which may quite possibly be the most meaningless statistic of them all.

We’ve all seen the daily news headlines: “The US Crosses 1 Million Cases,” “Florida Cases Out of Control,” “Global Cases Hit 6 Million.” Case counts make for great headlines because fear sells, and apparently the demand for fear-based news among U.S. media consumers is unlimited.

The case counts on their own, however, have moved further and further away from being useful statistics since the middle of April. On April 15 the CDC recommended that state agencies start reporting “probable” COVID-19 cases, meaning patients who exhibited a wide range of symptoms related to COVID-19, yet tested negative for the virus, or didn’t take a test at all. In June, case counts became even further obfuscated when many states began adding positive antibody test results to daily case counts, without providing a detailed breakout of the statistical breakdown of lab-confirmed cases, probable cases, and antibody test cases. Since antibody testing shows that a person had the virus in the past and is now recovered, reporting the positive antibody as a current case is impossible to understand.

Yet despite the decrease in the analytical value of case counts on their own, the media and political interest in case counts exploded as Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California case counts exploded higher in June and July. The massive upswing in cases has definitely made for scarier headlines, and since fear sells very well in America right now, the focus on cases makes sense. But this continual focus on cases has come at the expense of looking at more important numbers. One current example is the daily death rate for each state. Tracking the daily death rate helps us understand how we’re doing in terms of protecting those vulnerable to COVID-19. The lower the death rate, the better we’re doing at keeping the vulnerable safe.

Daily Death Rate = Daily New Deaths / Daily New Cases

Daily death rate can fluctuate greatly do to reporting inconsistencies, so I’ve created a chart that shows each state’s current daily death rate, based on a trailing 7-day average. You can view the entire chart here. The current overall United States daily death rate based on a 7-day average is 1.36%, much lower than the March-May time frame, when the number peaked at nearly 8%.

When we look at each individual state’s daily death rate, we see that as of today, 7/26/20, several states are still struggling to protect their vulnerable citizens. They are:

5 of the 7 states listed above have been out of the recent headline news because their case numbers haven’t been able to produce the required level fear. Yet the death rates in these states are actually very concerning when compared to the national average. If and when a second wave comes to these states this fall/winter, let’s hope the local officials have improved their planning and treatment so that they can better protect the elderly and the sick under their care.