Editorial: Why Are There No Recovery Statistics?


As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Golden Isles grows, the number one question I am asked (besides "is there a curfew?") is "Where are the numbers of recovered patients?" People tend to get frustrated at seeing the list of confirmed cases continue to grow, but not being given a lot of the hopefulness on the other side, the number of people who have made it through okay. And let's face it: some people who just want to panic go into paroxysms with every new update that is released.

To that end, I understand why people want to see the numbers of the recovered. It does give a sense of hope. It also helps allay some of the concerns of people who are currently only seeing the numbers of confirmed cases. The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard that so many of us in the media use offers a section that allows us to view the number of recoveries. If China's numbers are to be believed, they're a very calming set of statistics. Combining the number of deaths and the number of recoveries and subtracting them from the total number of confirmed cases gives a good picture of the number of active cases currently.

For example--again, if China's numbers are to be believed--they're showing a rather frightening 82,198 confirmed cases. On the other side of the ledger, though, they are showing 3,308 deaths and 75,923 recovered. That actually leaves them with only 2,967 active cases, which, while still high, and yes, suspect, is a lot more reassuring than 82,198. If that third number of 75,923 recovered weren't part of the equation, we'd have a lot of room and reason to be upset about the number.

In Georgia we're getting the first two numbers but not the third one. With each update, we're getting significant details from the Department of Public Health about the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, the number of hospitalizations due to the virus, and the number of deaths. We are even getting a breakdown of which counties have had deaths and whether there were any underlying medical conditions involved in the death. Of the 100 deaths in Georgia so far, only 4 have had no underlying medical conditions.

What we aren't getting is any of the good news, and that concerns me. We continue to hear the cries of health care professionals who insist that the state must go into total lockdown lest we overwhelm the system (the professor at Emory who said our "point of no return" was March 24th now says it's April 6th, but I digress). But we don't get a chance to see the actual burden on our health care system. The number of people hospitalized has been included in the daily reports, but what about those who LEAVE the hospital? What about those who are no longer occupying beds, using ventilators and whatnot? What about any of the people who've tested positive, are no longer symptomatic and are free to go about what is left of their lives at this point? We get nothing.

I don't understand how all the other nations can issue the number of recovered cases, how states can put out their total recoveries, but for some odd reason, we can't do that here in Georgia. For answers I turned to the Coastal Health District and asked the simple question, "Why can't we receive updates on the number of positive diagnoses that have recovered?" I received the following answer:

"We will not be able to provide an accurate recovery number for several reasons. Firstly, we do not have a true case count that includes ALL individuals with COVID-19. Our count only includes lab-confirmed cases, but not individuals who have symptoms but were never tested, or those who were infected but had no symptoms at all.

"Also, recovery status is not data we collect. Our investigation focuses on activity histories and contact tracing to limit further spread, and we provide recommendations for patients moving forward, but we do not track patients throughout their clinical presentation."

Let me tackle the first assertion here, the one that says that because they don't have a complete number of every single case that has ever existed, they can't give the number of recoveries. Wouldn't that invalidate ANY numbers they gave out? I mean, the positive tests don't represent ALL individuals with COVID-19, so why put the number out? Doesn't it seem reasonable that when you've diagnosed a positive case, some medical professional is treating the person or following up with them? Can that data not be reported and tracked? Is it really that hard?

The second response that recovery status is not data we collect simply means "we've never done it that way." I already knew that or I wouldn't have been asking the question. I guess my question should have been more along the lines of, "Why not?"

I report the updates twice a day because they are of intense local interest. It concerns me to see the alarm from the general public every time one of those reports is released, even though nothing really unexpected has come of the reports to date (our death rate is a little higher than expected). I get very frustrated at the rate of alarm I see every time numbers are released.

To the Department of Public Health I say, other places seem to have a mechanism by which they can track when a patient has recovered from COVID-19. Our populace is one that has been beaten down, one business closing, one furlough, one curfew at a time. We need some good news, and you're in a position to give it to us. I humbly request that you begin to track and release the recovery numbers.

To the public I say continue to do the things you're supposed to do: wash your hands, keep your distance, quarantine if you have any symptoms. But don't panic. When the numbers climb, I know it makes the butt cheeks clench, but for me, please, unclench. We will get through this, but keep the numbers in perspective. The earliest projections were of thousands of cases in the Golden Isles. We're at 17. That number is going to continue to grow for a little while, and due to the nature of the numbers we are given, it will never go down. You can't "undiagnose" a case. Panicking won't make it end any sooner.

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