For most people, including mainstream media, the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic boils down to just two sets of numbers – total cases and total deaths. They roll across the television screen every day like ticker tape and are echoed just as often in newspaper headlines.
Public health officials and politicians use them, rather effectively as it turns out, to raise the level of fear and anxiety in people to get them to follow the latest restrictions.
But as the old saying goes, “There are three types of lies – fibs, damned lies, and statistics.”
In reality, it’s not the statistics that are lies, but how they are used, or conveyed to the public. Truth be told, lying is not the appropriate definition of how public health officials are using the statistics, or data, about the current pandemic. They can, however, be incredibly misleading, which is frustrating for someone like myself who likes to deal in facts.
One of the biggest problems is that every jurisdiction reports the data differently. Take something as simple as case counts. The only relevant number in that regard is active cases. But very few COVID dash-boards display the number of current active cases in a way that is readily accessible.
The Ottawa Public Health COVID dash-board is one of the few dashboards that readily shows the number of active cases on it’s landing page along with the current number of hospitalizations and ICU patients, but it’s not in any context. You have to go to the “Time Trends” tab to see the current data in relation to past information. There, you can see the trends on multi-coloured graphs. For instance, the number of active cases has been trending downward since Jan. 7. But you have to search for a mighty long time before you will see that trend reflected in any reports in the mainstream media. It’s one of the reasons why I wrote this week’s front page story.
But by far the biggest culprit of misinfor-mation is the province of Ontario. A quick visit to the provincial COVID dashboard is enough to make anyone’s head spin.
Like a lot of other government dashboards, it gives the daily count of the number of new cases, without any context. It’s one of the numbers that the mainstream media parrots most often. But publishing the number of new cases without publishing the change in active cases, which is a combination of the number of new cases and the number of resolved cases, is dishonest.
If you report the number of new cases day in and day out every day, you can give the false impression that things are going pretty badly, but if the resolved cases are out-pacing the new cases, then things don’t look quite so bad.
The other numbers you tend see a lot are seven-day averages – seven-day average of new cases – seven-day average of hospitalizations etc. But neither number paints a picture in real time.
The most relevant numbers at this moment are the trend in active cases, which is going down in Ottawa and plateauing across the province, and the number of hospitalizations from one day to the next, which are lagging behind the active cases by 10-14 days.
As I wrote earlier, it is fairly easy to find those numbers on the Ottawa Public Health dashboard.
The provincial numbers are not so easy to find. You have to go to the main page at covid-19.ontario.ca, click on the data tab at the top of the page. Once the data page opens, you then have to click on “Hospitalizations” on the left-hand navigation bar to get to the next page where you must click on “Active and hospitalized cases”. You then must scroll down a couple of screens to get to the actual active and hospitalized case data and graphs. Easy, peasy.
You can then configure the graphs to show a 7-day trend, a 30-day trend, a 90-day trend, or the trending from ground zero. The latter lets you compare the current Omicron wave to the Delta wave back in April, which is especially useful when comparing hospitalization and ICU rates, both of which clearly indicate that the severity of the current wave is not nearly as bad as the Delta wave.
Now, as difficult as that data was to extract from the provincial dashboard, it’s not nearly as difficult as trying to extract the same data on COVID dashboards in other countries, or even on the Government of Canada dashboard, which I was still trying to navigate at the time I was writing this column on Sunday. Thankfully, I was blessed with a stubborn streak a mile long.
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