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FAQ on COVID-19 numbers from the Houston Chronicle's data team

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 6/18/2020 Jordan Rubio, Stephanie Lamm, Matt Dempsey
a person in a car: Pharmacist Bob Niemann accepts a test from a patient at a COVID-19 testing site at Bear Branch Sports Field, Friday, May 15, 2020, in The Woodlands. The site is one of five free sites across Greater Houston where Kroger employees help administer up to 250 tests per day. The Woodlands site is open through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. © Jason Fochtman, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Pharmacist Bob Niemann accepts a test from a patient at a COVID-19 testing site at Bear Branch Sports Field, Friday, May 15, 2020, in The Woodlands. The site is one of five free sites across Greater Houston where Kroger employees help administer up to 250 tests per day. The Woodlands site is open through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.

As the number of coronavirus cases spike in Texas, many readers have questions about numbers and statistics related to the pandemic.

The Houston Chronicle’s data team is providing answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.

Why is the Chronicle’s number of cases, and the daily increase, always higher than what the state puts out?

For most counties, the Chronicle relies on data from the Texas Department of State and Health Services for the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.

Those state numbers are supplemented by data collected directly from about 20 counties on a daily basis. This accounts for most of the difference between the paper’s numbers and the state’s.

The DSHS daily count reflects totals from the previous day. Data collected from the counties directly is more current.

In addition, counties often note when certain numbers are excluded from their counts for a variety of reasons. This allows the Chronicle to catch those exceptions and include them in the counts.

Is the number of new cases rising due to increased testing?

No. While the seven-day average of new cases has risen dramatically, the rolling average of tests conducted per day has stayed roughly flat. This means that there has not been a rise in the number of people tested equal to the number of new cases.

Since Memorial Day, the rolling average number of new cases has increased more than 150 percent,from 944 cases to 2,365. During the same time, the average number of new tests increased from 28,329 to nearly 31,500, roughly 11 percent.

The state’s testing data also includes antibody tests, which check if someone has antibodies to fight COVID-19. Antibody test results show who had the virus, not new infections.

The better way to understand how testing is affecting new infection numbers is to look only at the number of viral tests conducted.

The average number of viral tests increased from 22,516 to 28,727 since Memorial Day. While this is a significant increase, it’s not large enough to explain the rise in the average number of cases.

Additionally, the positive viral test rate has increased since Memorial Day, from about 4.3 percent positive to 6.7 percent. A lower positive test rate would mean there is enough testing to get an accurate gauge of the virus’ spread and that any increase in cases could be explained by an increase in testing. If the virus is not spreading, an increase in testing would show a flat or decreasing number of positives.

But most of these new cases aren’t serious right? Aren’t the state’s medical facilities still able to handle the new cases?

Coronavirus hospitalizations have increased since Memorial Day, growing by nearly 70 percent to 2,793 patients as of Tuesday.

Bexar County, for example, reported a record number of hospitalizations Tuesday with 212 patients, 82 in intensive care.

In Harris County, 1,079 people were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus as of June 16, more than doubling the number of patients since Memorial Day, according to data from the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council.

The state still has enough capacity for hospitalized patients, with more than 13,800 beds available and 1,473 ICU beds. There are nearly 5,900 ventilators available, according to data from DSHS.

However, these numbers are for the entire state. Some areas are nearing or above their capacity for hospitalizations.

Aren’t most of the cases the Chronicle has reported recovered by now? 

According to the latest DSHS numbers, an estimated 60,681 people have recovered from the coronavirus. That means of the more than 95,000 cases in Texas, about two-thirds have recovered. The rest are either active cases or deaths.

As of Tuesday, there were 2,045 deaths in Texas due to the coronavirus, leaving more than 30,000 active cases.

However, that is an estimate from the state based on assumptions related to hospitalization rates and other factors.

Doesn’t Texas have far fewer cases than other states?

Relative to its population, yes. In terms of absolute cases, Texas is sixth in the nation, behind much smaller states like New Jersey and Massachusetts.

However, Texas has conducted about 1.3 million viral tests out of a population of about 29 million people. With less than five percent of the population having been tested, it’s impossible to know how prevalent the coronavirus really is in Texas.

In Massachusetts, about 10 percent of the population has been tested while 12.7 percent of New Jersey residents have been tested. In California, about seven percent of the population has been tested.

So yes, Texas does have fewer cases relative to its population but it has also done less testing relative to its population as well.

Aren’t most of the new cases from inmates or nursing homes? Why doesn’t the Chronicle know which cases are inmates and which ones are non-inmates?

This is a data integrity issue at the state and county level.

DSHS has been inconsistent on whether the number of cases they put out daily includes inmates.

Through reporting, the Chronicle found some counties include cases from inmates while other counties do not. Some counties reported inmate cases and then dropped them from their case count suddenly. Other counties added them all at once. This has led to some confusion about the accuracy of the data provided by DSHS. Additionally, as inmates are moved across county lines, the way those cases are tracked changes.

The June 16 update included 1,476 cases from Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates that were not previously reported. But the state did not provide data on when those cases occurred.

This makes it difficult to determine which cases are from inmates or from non-inmates.

As far as long-term care facilities, the state started releasing the number of cases in nursing homes and assisted living centers in mid-May. So this makes it easier to see what share of cases those facilities comprise.

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