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Why aren’t coronavirus case counts the same on different websites?

Coronavirus outbreak

Health experts say local counties have the most accurate information, and different methods of reporting can create discrepancies in totals.

For Texans who are trying to find the number of positive COVID-19 cases in their area, the totals may depend on where they look.

Dallas County, for example, reported 247 cases on the county’s health department website earlier this week. But on the same day, the Department of State Health Services’ website showed only 169.

Why are these numbers so different? Where should you look to find the most accurate case counts in your area? Here’s what you need to know.

Reporting methods can make case counts differ

Some of the differences between state and county totals can be explained because of the different methodologies in how health officials report cases.

For example, the Dallas County health department reports totals without including people who test positive but reside outside the county. So even if people test positive in Dallas, they are only included in the count if they live in Dallas County.

But Austin’s health department, among others, includes anyone who has been tested or treated in Austin-Travis County, said Jen Samp, public information and marketing manager for Austin Public Health.

Chris Van Deusen, director of media relations for the Department of State Health Services, said the department’s methodology for reporting statewide totals changed recently to speed up the state’s online reports.

Previously, the department waited for official reports to come in from local jurisdictions, creating a greater discrepancy between county and statewide totals. But now the department is using the totals counties are reporting publicly. The Texas Tribune reported the change happened Tuesday.

“We’re collecting those in the evening and updating our data the next morning, so they could get off again once the local jurisdictions update their numbers,” Van Deusen said in an email.

The change caused an additional 305 cases to be added to the state’s total.

It’s also important to note that some sites, including the state health department’s site, don’t include people who returned from China or who returned on a cruise ship on chartered flights to San Antonio.

It’s also possible some sites include presumptive positive cases — cases the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention haven’t confirmed — while others do not.

A popular interactive map created by Johns Hopkins University, for example, pulls from several public health databases and includes presumptive positive cases. The map showed a higher case count in Texas earlier this week than the state health department’s website.

The state health department’s site also warns that other sites may be using news reports to count cases, making it possible that some cases have been counted twice.

Local counties probably have the most accurate information

Dr. John Carlo, former Dallas County medical director and CEO of Prism Health North Texas, said local governments generally have the most accurate information.

“Probably the most up to date and current is going to be the lowest jurisdictional entity,” he said. “It’s easier and more timely when you’re in a smaller segment of the population.”

Van Deusen also said the state recommends people look to their local counties for case information.

Be careful about taking city counts at face value

Some cities have been issuing news releases or reporting cases within city limits. But that can create confusion for cities that overlap counties.

Frisco, for example, lies in Collin and Denton counties. When a Frisco family tested positive for the disease earlier this month, the cases were confirmed by Collin County.

As of Thursday, 19 cases were reported in Frisco, but they were split between the two counties. Trying to separate cases by city may create confusion or errors in case counts for cities in multiple jurisdictions.

Case numbers could change as more is learned about the disease

Health experts say it’s possible case definitions could change as scientists and health officials learn more about the disease.

In China, where the outbreak originated, the definition of what would be counted as a positive case changed several times, which some experts believe has led to significant changes in case reports.

In mid-February, the country said it would count people who were clinically diagnosed with the disease — but had not been officially tested. That caused a a large spike in numbers.

But later that month, the methodology went back to including only lab-confirmed cases, causing what appeared to be a huge decline in cases.

“It does happen from time to time where we might change the definition or case definition to what we consider a case depending on multiple factors,” Carlo said.

However, though it’s possible for case definitions to change, some health experts are wary about how quickly the numbers changed in China, raising questions about how reliable the information is at the epicenter of the outbreak.

Overall, case totals are probably undercounted Health experts have said that testing abilities across the country have lagged, making it likely that there are more cases of COVID-19 in local communities than officially reported.

Texas especially has lagged behind other states in testing people for the disease. The Washington Post reported this week that New York — one of the states that has been hit hardest by the outbreak — has processed seven times the number of tests as Texas, even though Texas has 9 million more people.

Public health officials have emphasized that the number of cases is likely to increase significantly as Texas increases testing and gets a better understanding of the outbreak.

Overall, case totals are probably undercounted

Health experts have said that testing abilities across the country have lagged, making it likely that there are more cases of COVID-19 in local communities than officially reported.

Texas especially has lagged behind other states in testing people for the disease. The Washington Post reported this week that New York — one of the states that has been hit hardest by the outbreak — has processed seven times the number of tests as Texas, even though Texas has 9 million more people.

Public health officials have emphasized that the number of cases is likely to increase significantly as Texas increases testing and gets a better understanding of the outbreak.

 

This article was originally published on dallasnews.com

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