Coronavirus Data Dump: Good News, Bad News, and The Only Stat That Matters

by | Mar 27, 2020


After spending the better part of the past two days sifting through mountains of available data – not all of it consistent – there’s a LOT of good news out there, with a little bit of bad. The worst of the bad news is that to make sure things start trending in the right direction (which they will at some point), we’re going to have to remain isolated from one another for a little while longer. Here’s what we found:


SURGE IN CASES CORRESPONDS TO SURGE IN TESTING

A significant spike in COVID-19 cases this week occured not because of a sudden increase in infections, but because of a significant surge in new testing. Over the past three days, Florida tested more people (13,493 between March 25-27) than we tested in the previous three weeks combined (12,865 from March 1-23). And of course, we got a surge in positive cases to go with it.

“If you go back and look where we were just a week and a half ago, the number of tests that were being done a day, to where we are now, that’s a huge sea change…so some of this is just identifying what’s already been out there.”  –Gov. Ron DeSantis, March 27th, 2020

The good news is that the percentage of positive cases (10%) remains fairly consistent, despite the surge, indicating that most of the growth in new cases we’re seeing can be directly attributable to the number of new tests.

Here’s a chart to visualize the data:

The state’s own ramped up testing wasn’t the only contributing factor, either, according to Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees. Part of the massive spike is attributable to a backlog of cases being dumped to the Florida Department of Health by a private lab, which sent 4,000 patient test results to the state on Wednesday night.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Keep a sharp eye on the rate of positive COVID-19 tests. Miami-Dade County, with 27% of all COVID-19 cases in the state, also has the highest percentage of positive test results, at around 14 percent of all tests coming back positive. Leon County, by contrast, has a rate of just 4 percent positive. Statewide, we’re seeing about 9 percent positive. Theoretically, that rate should start going up as the number of cases increases.

THE ONLY STATISTIC THAT REALLY MATTERS

The sole reason that 21.3 million Floridians have spent the past two weeks hunkered down at home, guarding their toilet paper stash and trying to cope with increasingly bored kids isn’t because we’re trying not to get coronavirus. Chances are, most of us will eventually get it, just as most of us also get the flu or common cold. No, the real reason we’re social distancing is because we’re trying to prevent our health care systems from becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. And in the end, that’s the only thing that matters.

HOSPITAL MATH: Depending on the data source, Florida has anywhere between 45,000-52,000 total hospital beds, of which about 15,000-20,000 beds are unoccupied and available at any given point in time. We also have a couple thousand intensive care unit (ICU) beds which will be critical for coronavirus patients with the most serious symptoms.

In a press conference, Governor DeSantis announced that as of today, three weeks into the outbreak, we have exactly 503 people hospitalized in the state with COVID-19, and we still have more than 19,000 beds available. That means we still have about 98-99 percent of our hospital capacity left. Yes, that’s a lot, but it can evaporate quickly because of the exponential growth of hospitalizations that we’re starting to see.

There is also a lot of evidence that most hospitals around the state are currently seeing a surprisingly low volume of patients. In many cases, nurses have seen their hours reduced, and ER wait times around the state remain incredibly low – likely because people are staying home, taking fewer risks, engaging in less dangerous activities, and avoiding social contact which has a large impact on the number illnesses and injuries our hospitals usually deal with.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: As I’ve said, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations is the only metric that really matters in this crisis.You can ignore everything else because non-hospitalized COVID-19 cases are largely irrelevant but for the new people they infect, which in turn, aren’t relevant either, unless they are hospitalized.

Keep a sharp eye on the hospitalization number (available from the state health department here, in red) and compare it with previous days to understand how fast it’s growing. Don’t worry, if you don’t have the previous day’s data, we’ll keep track of it for you – check out the chart below.

THE BAD NEWS: Despite the reduced number of overall hospitalizations, the past nine days have seen COVID-19 hospitalization numbers double twice, and we’ve added 50 percent of that total in just the last three days. Deaths have also started to grow quickly:

At our current rate of exponential growth, we can sustain only five more doublings before we hit the limit in terms of patients we can treat in hospitals. If cases keep growing at this rate, we’ll hit that limit around April 18th, about the time experts predict the number of cases in the U.S. will hit their peak. That is, of course, a worst-case scenario. There is ample evidence to suggest that coronavirus isn’t growing at a steady exponential rate, but at a slowly decaying exponential rate, meaning that in a week or so, instead of cases doubling every 4 days, they might only be doubling every 5 or 6 days.

THE GOOD NEWS: Here’s a more optimistic outlook, which predicts we won’t hit the peak number of hospitalizations in Florida until May 14th, and at that, worst-case, it’ll only be around 5,600 beds, or about 30 percent of our total capacity (click the image to enlarge it- if you’re viewing on mobile, sorry…):

MORE GOOD NEWS: We have yet to see the full impact of social distancing measures put into place, which will almost certainly be visible very soon in the number of daily cases, and in particular, the number of hospitalizations.

We also have a top-notch state emergency management team, with skills honed annually by Florida’s hurricane season. As any of those state experts will tell you, emergency management is not about the crisis itself, but managing the logistics of recovery after the storm has passed. Apply that same expertise to the coronavirus outbreak, and we can be confident that our state leaders will be able to identify critical supply shortages and surpluses, and rapidly shift essential medicine, equipment and personnel to where they are needed most.

CONCLUSION

The number of COVID-19 tests in the United States has grown significantly over the past week, and with it, the number of COVID-19 cases we have identified. Our nation now leads the world in total number of cases identified – with more than 101,000 so far. Of those, a shocking 44% are located in New York State, and half of those cases are in New York City. Without a doubt, COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus with serious consequences for about 20% of the population.

In New York, this is an extremely serious crisis without parallel in modern life. Here in Florida, the situation is still fluid, but currently under control, albeit with severe restrictions on everyday life.

As other media outlets continue to report on the sheer number of cases, keep in mind that number is largely irrelevant, as the only statistics that truly matter are the number of hospitalizations and deaths. Those figures are NOT going up due to a sudden surge in testing, but because they are real people requiring real medical care. And those are the numbers that will also matter politically when this terrible outbreak is finally behind us.

The best thing we can do right now is to hunker down, heed the advice of our elected leaders, and help reduce the impact of this nasty virus.

More analysis soon when more data becomes available. Stay tuned…

7 Comments

  1. Paul M

    This is excellent reporting! I repost your insights often – thank you!

    I would like to suggest that instead of reporting total cases and rather than looking at cases in counties that you dive deeper into per capita stats. The per capita rates of illness and hospitalization truly tell the seriousness of the problem in Alachua and Collier counties (similar to Dade) and also how the issue is not effecting Duval, Baker, Etc. To that extent. Sheer numbers do not reflect precisely where the issue needs to be addressed now. Thanks a lot!

    Reply
  2. Jean Osborn

    I don’t even live in Florida. No one in my entire inner circle lives there. I am not one to ever comment on any social media and am not on any such platforms. I stumbled across Burgess in the extremely hard quest of finding strong journalistic morals and talent in these trying times. So I read this guy’s work, solely because he seems to be one of the select few on the globe that both makes sense and works hard. That is especially helpful for this current set of humans in our struggle as old as time lol. Trump would love him and needs his help, so somebody please get this guy in our nation’s top pandemic decisioning. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  3. patricia tara

    Don’t have the time to read this now….but, will do so, later. Everyone here in Florida and of course the entire world…is getting tired of fighting this deadly virus. I somehow feel, Florida waited to long to make preparations for something like this….I just hope they have learned a lesson….and a vaccine will be found soon….

    Reply
  4. David Martin

    Unfortunately, the University of Washington IHME projection has just moved the peak deaths per day (74) for Florida up to about May 4 from May 15. The latest announcement of 63 deaths suggests that we’re moving very fast toward a peak. Gov. DeSantis seems to be preparing a response to that alarming report.

    Reply
  5. Rob Samples

    I think Brian Burgess should get some kind of an award for being a REAL journalist. Like Cronkite, Brinkley and Murrow he simply reported “the way it was”. He seems to be a journalist who just reports the facts without putting in the typical political spins. From the article, I couldn’t say with certainty where his personal, political leanings are.

    As an engineer, I’m a big numbers guy. Brian’s approach makes a lot of sense. The sudden increase in testing, irregularities from test to test and place to place as well as the long delays before symptoms show up can really skew the data. This is especially true when you are looking for trends and changes in rates of infection. He’s is taking a good approach to analyzing the data. Good work.

    Reply
  6. Jenn Giroux

    I agree Jean. Brian Burgess has a gift of analysis and writing skill combined with a good sense of humor and integrity that shines through his work. Rare in the blog or media world.

    Reply
  7. Judy Hill

    I agree we live in Edgewater Florida which is in Volusia County. I’m 66 years old they need to test everyone before all of this became public two people that I knew passed away with what was supppose to be the flu. It was so different from anything we ever seen. What about these young people that have died from this virus and Trump want our schools to open. Desantas is a mini Me wannabe Trump. He is trying to run Florida just like Trump is running this Country and that is very dangerous for all of us Floridans.

    Reply

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