The Georgia Department of Public Health has received criticism for publishing confusing and misleading data.

When the government makes errors in publishing information, citizens’ trust in the government and the information they receive could erode. During a pandemic, that’s especially true. COVID-19 is a new disease, which makes it difficult to predict the number of future cases and deaths and the disease’s economic impact. It is vital that the public can trust official institutions to accurately report this data.

However, the Georgia Department of Public Health has made several errors, leading to criticism of DPH and the governor’s office. It is understandable that the pressure to report data quickly could lead to mistakes. Still, the government could have avoided several of these problems.

For example, one graph appeared to show the rate of new infections was declining in five counties every day for the past two weeks. In reality, the dates on the x-axis were not in chronological order. Candice Broce, a spokesperson for Gov. Brian Kemp, said the x-axis was set up to show which days had the greatest number of new cases. The data was also preliminary, and the rate of new cases was steady or dropped only slightly.

The way the DPH reports testing has also been misleading. The Ledger-Enquirer, a local paper in Columbus, Georgia, uncovered that the state was including antibody testing in its total test numbers. Antibody testing shows whether a person once had the novel coronavirus, whereas viral testing tracks current infections.

Combining these two tests skews the COVID-19 growth rate in the state, misleading Georgia citizens and researchers in other states trying to use Georgia’s numbers. Antibody testing accounted for 57,000 of Georgia’s tests — around 14%.

There are a couple of reasons why this is a big problem. First, it could make it seem as though Georgia has a better ability to track the virus than it really does. Kemp has boasted about the state’s rise to 20th in the country in testing per capita; however, after taking out the antibody tests, Georgia’s per capita test rate fell to 29th.

Second, including antibody testing could influence the positive infection rate. Though the state included antibody testing in its total number of tests, it did not add a positive antibody test by itself to the total confirmed cases. This could make it appear as if the number of tests was growing relative to the number of infections. In a press release on May 18, the governor’s office said the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests had fallen to 10.5% from 16% two weeks ago. However, the conflation of antibody and viral testing may have contributed to this decline.

These data issues can have major real-world consequences. The decline in the percentage of positive tests might have informed Kemp’s decision on when to reopen the economy.

In a press conference on May 21, Kemp addressed the problems with reporting data. He also said attempts to provide real-time data multiple times a day could have also contributed to the errors. He admitted the state government had not been “perfect,” but committed to transparency.

Hopefully, the reporting procedures will improve, and reporting problems will become more infrequent. In a time when people are concerned about their health and livelihoods, trust is more important than ever. Georgians are using this information to determine whether to open their businesses, whether or not to travel and how to remain safe. We need to know we can rely on this information to make good decisions. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, DPH must be more accurate and transparent with its data.

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