As countless Austinites struggle to afford food and rent because of government shutdowns, are local officials actually using good data to justify crippling citizens’ livelihoods?
This week, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott downgraded the city to Stage 3 on their self-created “risk-based guidelines” chart, saying at a press conference last week that coronavirus hospitalizations are declining and overall case numbers are falling.
“Our hospitals continue to be in a better situation. The hospitalization numbers continue to decline,” Escott said.
Furthermore, Dr. Escott said much of the recent “spike” of new cases was, in reality, a “reporting error,” a backlogged pile of state laboratory data they just received earlier this month that contained cases dating back as far as April. Dr. Escott said he and his staff checked through those cases and found a majority of them were duplicate records that they had already investigated. Escott’s staff also found that 40-50 percent were no longer active cases.
Despite all of the good news, Escott curiously announced they would be changing which numbers they will use to decide whether to continue the city shutdown; instead of using the number of citizens hospitalized with coronavirus as their primary metric, they’ll be using the much more questionable “positivity rate.”
“It’s likely that we will make some transition over the coming weeks to focus more on positivity and new cases and away from new hospital admissions,” Escott said.
What does that mean? The positivity rate simply refers to the percentage of citizens who test positive for the virus out of all citizens tested—but this is where things with Austin Public Health become foggy.
Escott said the positivity rate is currently at 7.6 percent, and APH wants it to be below 5 percent by early September. Yet the positivity rate is only measuring a tiny fraction of the population who decide to get tested, leading citizens to ask if the relative handful of tests every week is a reliable number to justify shutting down the entire city and county of over 1.2 million people.
“So, let me get this correct,” one citizen commented on social media. “The bureaucrats want to get away from hospitalizations and use the percentage positive. So in a city/county of 1.2 million, if only 100 people get tested (because the other 1,999,900 folks are not showing signs of being sick), if 6 people are tested positive, the whole city needs to remain closed because a random 5% target level was established? That’s beyond stupid.”
Austinites began asking Austin Public Health directly for an explanation, and they received only vague answers.
“Why use positivity rate?” one citizen tweeted to APH. “This is positive results over number of tests performed, correct? As the panic dies down and fewer people get tests (especially asymptotic people who may have had brief contact with someone), the positive *rate* goes up because the denominator goes down.”
“The positivity rate gives us an indication of how widespread COVID-19 is, which is why our goal is to have it down to 5% by Sept. 8,” APH replied.
But citizens asked again about the rate only representing a tiny fraction of the population.
“Can you help us to understand how positivity rate is being calculated, and how old test data from April, May, June, and July are being excluded from the calculation?” one citizen tweeted, questioning how citizens can be confident the rate represents current reality in the city.
“The positivity rate is calculated as the number of positive cases divided by the number of overall tests being performed,” APH replied.
“Thanks so much for the timely response,” the citizen wrote back. “Are old test data from April, May, June, and July being excluded from the calculation? Only the most recent test data from new tests are being included in the calculation?”
APH did not respond, despite continuing to reply to others on the same Twitter thread.
Texas Scorecard contacted APH earlier this week to ask for more details about how they’re determining the positivity rate and why they’re using it. Despite promising a call back, they did not reply by publication time.
APH did say separately they tested only 3,600 citizens for the virus in the first week of August (their most recent data available), which would mean that data on only 0.3 percent of the county is currently dictating whether 1.2 million people are allowed to earn money for food and rent.
At least 132,000 Austinites have lost their jobs over the past several months because of officials’ shutdowns; numerous iconic local businesses have closed permanently, and most of the city’s live music venues, a foundation of Austin’s culture, may not survive. Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe also recently extended their shutdown orders until mid-December.
“Whether or not [small businesses] are making a profit at this time, all they are asking the government is to open their doors and keep them open for business,” said Annie Spillman, director of the Texas Small Business Association. “You can trust that small-business owners especially will follow and have shown that they’ve followed health and safety guidelines.”