Tracking coronavirus data and why it's so hard

Published: Jun. 3, 2020 at 6:56 PM EDT
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If you get confused about COVID-19-related data - you're not the only one.

Last week, we spoke with Molly O'Dell of the Roanoke-Allegheny Health District about the numbers, and she pointed out numbers about COVID-19 cases and deaths don't always match the same datasets recorded at the state level.

But the data discrepancy goes further than that and, one expert says, with serious consequences.

“The fact is, I don’t think there’s any question we could have saved lives if we could have acted more responsible, you know, in a way that was more coordinated earlier on," said Philip Bourne, dean of the newly-created School of Data Science at the University of Virginia.

He said this week that despite best intentions from experts worldwide, it's incredibly challenging to get a clear picture of what the coronavirus does.

“What is COVID-related and what’s not is not being collected consistently, so that creates, you know, how can you get accurate comparisons?” he said.

He says it's not only challenging to get the data, but also to make it timely, accessible and helpful.

“And then even how we visualize data, you can give people false impressions by how we visualize," he said.

The privatized nature of health care in the US, he added, complicates this.

“I mean, right now it’s just a patchwork quilt of trying to put this stuff together as opposed to having something that’s more uniform.”

Bourne said he's heard others suggest, and supports, the idea of taking a note from the National Hurricane Center and developing a group dedicated to tracking viruses and making recommendations for action.

He encourages people to look to authoritative sources like the CDC, and is encouraged about what we can and will do for better data, noting that enrollment at the School of Data Science is rising.

“They’re basically saying this is a golden era for data science," he said of the Data Science school's Board of Directors. "You know, when we get past this or as we get past it, how we think about everything is going to change and be more data driven.”

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