On Friday, Sept. 11, Arkansas reported a new record high number of cases of Covid-19 – 1,107. The next day, Sept. 12, the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) reported 727 new cases. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Sept. 12 that the decline was good news as the state finished the third week of school.
But Eureka Springs resident and citizen watchdog Doug Stowe didn’t see it as good news that the day the state reported 727 cases, The New York Times and Johns Hopkins University each reported 1,799 new cases in Arkansas. Stowe questioned why the ADH claimed 1,000 fewer cases.
“The two pictures tell completely different stories about how we’re dealing with the pandemic,” Stowe said. “Which is correct and why?”
ADH Public Information Officer Danyelle McNeill wrote in an email Sept. 13 that it looked like the Times and Johns Hopkins started reporting both probable and confirmed Covid-19 cases together. She agreed to check on the figures and later sent an email stating that all of ADH’s numbers are provisional and subject to change.
The ADH website page “New cases in Arkansas by day” was revised to “9/12: State adds probable cases.” The graph showed cases of 1,799. McNeill said probable cases are someone with a positive antigen test, someone with symptoms and an epidemiological link to a known case, or someone who died without testing but has Covid-19 listed on the death certificate.
Crystal Ursin, who has been closely following the governor’s daily reports, said that not all of the 1,799 cases now included in the Sept. 12 report were new cases from the previous 24 hours.
“They were all of the antigen tests from the past six weeks, basically from when they first started the antigen testing,” Ursin said. “I noticed that the website changed and figured out that it now shows probable and confirmed cases. Reporters have been asking for them to include antigen tests in the total number. They finally registered the results on the website.”
On the afternoon of Sept. 15, Gov. Hutchinson announced that the state will be adding 139 new deaths to the total Covid-19 deaths, probable deaths as have been calculated by the department of health. These are characterized as people who had a positive antigen test and/or who had Covid-19 listed as one of the causes of death.
Information getting to the people is crucial
Stowe said he feels the initial ADH report was misleading and that the public hasn’t been informed about the discrepancies.
“It is vitally important we have as much information as we can to combat the disease,” Stowe said. “There are so many questions we are left with and no clear guidance. Do we just throw caution to the wind to sustain the Trump economy, or do we protect our families and ourselves? We still don’t have enough testing and it’s taking too long to get test results. Where is a national testing strategy? Do we have enough personal protection equipment now? There are so many things I’m so concerned about.”
Dr. Dan Bell said compiling the state totals is difficult because the ADH is reporting a number of different types of tests from different sources.
“Tests results are coming in from all around including the ADH, commercial labs and the University of Arkansas – Fayetteville,” Bell said. “It is complicated because, for example, they were trying to keep prison cases separate from community cases and antigen tests separate from the more accurate PCR tests.”
But Bell said Stowe makes a good point.
“Accurate data is so important for us to understand what is happening around us,” Bell said. “But these antigen tests are creating a difficulty for the health department. What they are doing is if you have a positive antigen test, then they do a PCR test to verify it. If you add the two together, you would over report the number of cases.”
Bell said he believes the governor and ADH have done a good job overall with months of daily press conferences, but the governor has announced ending those.
“I don’t think they should end the daily reports,” Bell said. “They need to press on. The CDC estimates that the peak of Covid-19 is probably going to be early next spring. So, it is not time to be reducing our exchange of information. Usually, in Eureka Springs, the flu epidemic starts in the third of week of January, and I expect Covid-19 to follow the same tracks.”
There have been reports of misleading data reported in other states. The New York Times reports that inconsistencies with Covid-19 data collection in Texas “have clouded the picture of the pandemic’s trajectory in the state to the point that some residents and officials say they cannot rely on the numbers to tell them what is really going on.
“The state has overlooked thousands of cases, only to report them weeks after infection. It has made major adjustments to its case and death counts, defining them one way and then another, suddenly reporting figures for some counties that were vastly different from those posted by the local health department.”
The Times concludes that changes in the state’s figures have been large enough to affect national trends and sow confusion and distrust at a time public support is needed to avoid another surge.
One piece of information Stowe said is critical is the “R” number, or “effective reproduction number” of Covid-19. If one case results in one more case, that is sustaining it. If one case results in five infections, that would indicate a true pandemic. Stowe said one to .5 would indicate a gradual reduction to bring it under control.
Stowe mentioned uncertainties – are we safe meeting with friends outdoors without masks, but social distancing? Are we safe to have someone in our home? Is it safe to send children to school where they may catch the virus and bring it home to more vulnerable members of the family? Should we wipe our fingers immediately if we touch a keypad? Are we safe going in a place where we have a mask on and others don’t?
“We do not have a national strategy in place that gives us any kind of security,” Stowe said. “Then the state presents confusing information that completely undermines our sense of trust.”
Stowe, 71, said those questions are particularly important for people over 65. About 80 percent of Covid-19 deaths are in that age group. There are also potentially more long-term health consequences for older people.
He has concerns about the current administration and its failure to adopt a national strategy to combat the disease.
“There have been so many reports suppressed and so many miracle cures announced that turned out to be fraudulent,” Stowe said. “Unfortunately, there are people who buy into all that stuff. The consequence is they, then, out of their own misinformation, put others at risk.
“We have all been sacrificed for the stock market, yet the real economy for many working people has taken the greatest hit of our lifetime,” Stowe said.