Yes, coronavirus infections are on the rise. Here’s why it doesn’t matter.

by | Jun 11, 2020


The data is in: more than a month after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis began a phased reopening of the state’s economy, the number of daily new coronavirus cases has risen dramatically. Twice this week, we’ve set new daily infection records, and the state’s 7-day moving average is now well above the infection numbers back during the original peak in April.

Some of that increase can be written off to testing, but reduced restrictions and precautions are obviously going to contribute in some measure to the rising numbers. Here’s a look at the rise in cases, compared with the increase in testing:

Keep in mind those trendlines are on vastly different scales, with testing values on the left sidebar, and daily infections on the right. So even though the infections trendline jumps by about 500 cases per day since the first of June, the number of daily tests have gone up about 4,000 per day over that same period.

What does it mean? Nobody knows. And that’s the problem with daily infection numbers, which is why we have to ignore the hyperbolic headlines and look deeper to make sense of it all.

A good starting point for additional context is the percentage of positive tests. Is that number rising or falling? Rising. Slightly.

Is it higher or lower than what it was at the peak of the virus in April? It’s lower. Significantly.

Over the past three weeks, the seven-day moving average for positive tests bottom out around 2.5 percent of all tests administered. As of today, that moving average is now fluctuating around twice that number, currently about 4.75 percent:

What does it tell us? That coronavirus is spreading, and it’s not just already existing cases that we’re finding due to increased testing.

But of course we already knew that. In fact, Governor DeSantis knew this would happen, as did most anyone with an ounce of common sense. And DeSantis warned us to be wary of media reports hyping the daily infection numbers.

Why? Because that statistic doesn’t really matter. Coronavirus is gonna spread. It’s what viruses do.

What does matter? Hospitalizations.

Why? Because not only is the number of hospitalizations a more reliable indicator of the seriousness of the epidemic, it’s also the reason our nation (and the world) locked down for two months – to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

In Florida, that did not happen, nor does it appear that it will happen in the near future. Earlier this week we reported that, despite the obvious spike in cases, hospitalizations are not increasing at the same rate. That’s still the case, even though Florida posted a near-record number of hospitalizations yesterday.

Despite this warning, media outlets around the state and nation are highlighting the surge in cases and even in hospitalizations. Here’s what they are looking at:

A few observations are important here. First, we are using a 7-day moving average to smooth out the data because there are dramatic spikes and valleys due to the way that the data is collected and reported by the state. Second, the scale of the red and blue lines above are dramatically different. The small rise in hospitalizations over the past three days is nowhere near as large as the rise in infections over the past two weeks. Here’s a look at the same data where all three lines are at the same scale:

Is that short, gentle curve at the end of the red line enough of a rise in hospitalizations that it could overwhelm our state’s bed capacity? No. It’s not even close. We’re still well below the hospitalization numbers we were seeing in April.

That could change, of course, but it would have to change dramatically for state officials to take calls for a renewed lockdown seriously.

Keep in mind that the underlying rationale for locking down the state and destroying our economy was based on the idea that the virus was spreading exponentially, and would soon overwhelm our hospital bed capacity. We feared a need for ventilators, too. Neither of those nightmare scenarios came to pass. Many of the infection spread models were proven wrong, while the stay-at-home orders hurt people in other ways, regardless of how effectively it helped prevent the spread of the virus.

Now, with more data, we know we are nowhere near the level of exponential spread. And people understand that the virus is both highly contagious and very dangerous to some. As a result, people are taking precautions at an individual level. Businesses are taking precautions at the organizational level. There is no need for government to intervene unless the hospitalization trendline starts to rise dramatically to the point our bed capacity is threatened.

As things currently stand, it appears that we, as a state, can manage this challenge on a case-by-case basis without government-mandated lockdowns.

5 Comments

  1. David West

    You continue to misinterpret the hospitalization data from the Florida DoH. Since 6/1 the percentage of new cases that have their “Hospitalized” status listed as “UNKNOWN” has risen to over 90% of the most recent day’s cases. Prior to 6/1 the percentage of UNKNOWN varied around 15%. The large proportion of unknowns in the recent data make it impossible to say whether the hospitalization rate has increased or decreased. We do know, however, that the rate of hospitalization and the rate of ICU utilization as a proportion of cases identified has remained fairly stable across nations and across states.

    You should consider discussing your interpretation of the data with a data scientist or epidemiologist before making such pronouncements.

    Reply
  2. Brian Burgess

    Thanks David. We are looking into this. Thanks for the heads up.

    Keep in mind that the primary takeaway from this article is that Florida doesn’t need a government mandated lock-down. The basis for that conclusion is that we are nowhere near overwhelming our hospital bed capacity, even if all of the unknown cases are hospitalizations (they aren’t).

    Reply
  3. Charlotte Greenbarg

    Exactly. The rational for shutdown was the fear of overwhelming the health care system. That didn’t happen. Enough is enough. Unless you’re determined to destroy the economy

    Reply
  4. jerry dycus

    We don’t need a lock down but we need to dial back and make masks mandatory. And let’s not forget hospitalizations follow a month behind the infections.
    Now you have thousands of young spreaders with little or no symptoms will make many new infections because DeSantis opened too fast.
    And older people are pissed sacrificing them to the corporate gods as Trump’s numbers show repubs are losing them.

    Reply
  5. Andrew B

    Did this article age well? I submit that it did not.

    Reply

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