Friday, May 15, 2020

Grim state and local media coverage don't tell the whole Alabama COVID-19 story

As you read this, remember that the job of today's mass media is to sell cars,  drugs, legal services and laundry detergent. In order to do this job, they have to report on the state of current affairs, and they've found that fear, uncertainty and doubt sells more stuff than sunshine and optimism.

Nothing epitomizes the media mindset on the Coronavirus pandemic better than this op-ed piece from's Kyle Whitmire. I hope you'll join me in walking straight past the bullshit to find the truth that there is every reason to be optimistic; that we aren't doing nearly as badly as our journalistic professionals would like you to believe.

The Alabama Department of Public Health has a website called the COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard, which includes case statistics and charts that help the public understand how the pandemic is affecting our state.

Real Clear Politics has another data aggregating website called the Coronavirus Tracker for the United States (they have a global aggregator page there, too).

These resources are updated in near real time, so when you load the pages the data you see are the freshest available and they are not edited.

Using the data provided by these resources, I've developed a set of interesting charts that strongly indicate that the worst of this disease's impacts are behind us (for this wave, anyway).

This shows the unweighted moving average of new cases reported to ADPH each day for the entire state. A moving average is used to smooth out the day-to-day "noise" in a time series and reveal trends that might not be discerned by looking at the noisy raw data.

Here's a plot of the same moving average for Mobile County. The shapes of the two plots are not radically different. Both show two peaks, occurring at about the same times. The state's second peak is higher, which is explained in part by higher levels of testing in more rural areas of the state. Neither of the two short term trends leading to the second peaks is sustainable because of the information revealed in the following chart.

This chart shows the percent positive vis-a-vis the number of positive test results. The percent positive line peaked at about the same time as the state's first peak in mid-April, but the total number of positive cases has trended generally higher. The only phenomenon that could cause such a divergence is the combination of increased testing and a decline in the proportion of the state population that has been infected with the virus. In other words, the state is looking harder for positive cases by increasing the number of tests, but is having a harder time finding positive test results. The total number of cases has gone up, but only because testing has gone up. The declining number of percent positive will probably continue, because stay-at-home, social distancing and quarantines have had their impact. All of the low hanging fruit has been harvested.

What about Alabama's status versus the rest of the country? According to the  RCP page in the link above, Alabama is:

  • 26th in the number of confirmed cases
  • 28th in the number of cases per 1 million population
  • 25th in the number of deaths
  • 25th in the number of deaths per 1 million population
  • 31st in confirmed case fatality rate
  • 22nd in tests performed 
So, an honest evaluation of how Alabama fares nationally would conclude that we're about average. About half of the country is doing better and about half is doing worse. In other words, it's not as bad as the tense, anxious news reports and op-eds would have you believe.


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