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Did ethically compromised leaders in the U.S. manipulate COVID data to suit their desire to reopen the economy?

That’s the explosive allegation in this Associated Press story.

Public health officials in some states are accused of bungling coronavirus infection statistics or even using a little sleight of hand to deliberately make things look better than they are.

The risk is that politicians, business owners and ordinary Americans who are making decisions about lockdowns, reopenings and other day-to-day matters could be left with the impression that the virus is under more control than it actually is.

In Virginia, Texas and Vermont, for example, officials said they have been combining the results of viral tests, which show an active infection, with antibody tests, which show a past infection. Public health experts say that can make for impressive-looking testing totals but does not give a true picture of how the virus is spreading.

The federal government has guidelines for whether states should reopen. A two-week downward trend in infections has to precede the resumption of commercial and spiritual life.

However, some states have reopened when infections were still climbing or had plateaued.

In Florida, one of the state’s top data scientists recently got kicked out of her job for — she says — balking at cooking the books.

[T]he data scientist who developed the state’s coronavirus dashboard, Rebekah Jones, said this week that she was fired for refusing to manipulate data “to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

Maybe the lying is about as contagious as the coronavirus. Across the northern state line,

In Georgia, one of the earliest states to ease up on lockdowns and assure the public it was safe to go out again, the Department of Public Health published a graph around May 11 that showed new COVID-19 cases declining over time in the most severely affected counties. The daily entries, however, were not arranged in chronological order but in descending order.

Clever, in an evil sort of way.

For example, the May 7 totals came right before April 26, which was followed by May 3. A quick look at the graph made it appear as if the decline was smoother than it really was. The graph was taken down within about a day. …

Georgia’s Department of Public Health also regularly publishes a graph that shows cases over time, except new infections are not listed on the day they came back positive, which is the practice in many other states. Instead, Georgia lists new cases on the day the patient first reported symptoms. That practice can shift the timeline of the outbreak and make it appear as if the state is moving past the peak.

There’s a fantastic, more than half-century-old little book by Darrell Huff called How to Lie With Statistics. The deceit in Georgia would make for a great chapter in an updated edition.

Georgia state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat with a doctorate in microbiology, said the graph was a “prime example of malfeasance.” … “Sadly it feels like there’s been an attempt to make the data fit the narrative, and that’s not how data works,” she said.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s office denied there was any attempt to deceive the public.

To be fair, the kindest explanation for some of these shenanigans doesn’t involve data fraud.

Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said a lot of these cases are not necessarily the result of any attempt to fool the public. For example, she said, states may not have updated information systems that allow them to tell the difference between an antibody test and a viral test.

Still, if states are mixing a lot of testing numbers together, “you’re not going to be able to make good decisions about reopening and about what level of disease you have in the community,” Nuzzo said.

Whether and how coronavirus infections and COVID deaths are adequately tallied is now subject to debate in other countries too.

Some experts argue Russian authorities have been listing chronic illnesses as the cause of death for many who tested positive for the virus. Officials angrily deny manipulating statistics, saying Russia’s low death toll reflects early preventive measures and broad screening.

The shrugging and the denialism in Russia go back as far as February. That’s still not as bad as the United States, whose president roundly declared on January 22,

We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

The loved ones of 94,000 dead Americans — maybe more — probably beg to differ.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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