Grant Sarver June 18, 2020

The influx of COVID-19 data can be a bit overwhelming. Trying to interpret multiple charts and graphs and truly understanding what they mean can seem impossible. On top of that, different sources have different numbers. What gives?

The truth is that different sources use different data and calculate and display their numbers differently. The New York Times includes data from confirmed and probable cases and counts them on the day they were reported. Probable cases are measured following state and federal guidelines. Georgia’s Department of Public Health, on the other hand, only reports lab confirmed cases. Additionally, during a two week window, the state will go back and edit numbers as lab results come in based on when the patient started experiencing symptoms; the numbers aren’t set in stone until two weeks later.

How entities choose to display their data is just as important. Georgia seems to have created its own graphics with its own scales. It displays the worst affected areas in red (around the metro-Atlanta area), but they change the scale for red every day so that the lowest county case number in the metro area is the basis for red. Red ranges from 3,751 confirmed cases (Cobb County) to 5,753 (Gwinnett County); a range of 2,002. However, the next county after Cobb has 2,874 cases but is not included in red despite the closer range of 877. This aligns with Georgia’s push to put the pandemic in the past and not alert people to the reality of rising cases.

Other states, like New Jersey, avoid this kind of misinformation by only reporting raw numbers. They use software like Esri and Tableau to connect their databases and display clear numbers and charts. Viewers, like in Colorado, are also given the option of sorting charts by the reported date or the onset date.

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Always be sure to read the fine print when reviewing COVID-19 data and compare it to other sources. Oversaturation of information and special interests has led to different results and viewpoints. 



About the Author

Grant Sarver is from Suwanee, Georgia. He is currently an undergraduate pursuing Bachelor’s degrees in International Affairs and Sociology at the University of Georgia with an expected graduation in December 2020. He is most interested in human rights and social equality and plans to work for an entity that helps fulfill people’s human rights.