Home tests make counts less exact

  • That big drop in mid-December was due to opening some non-hospital beds to take recovering patients, not from any sudden improvement in the state’s COVID-19 status. NH DHHS—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 1/16/2022 5:01:12 PM
Modified: 1/16/2022 5:00:07 PM

For many years, New Hampshire has been inexact in letting us know how many people have influenza, a disease that kills thousands of state residents annually.

The Department of Health and Human Services has a weekly update on the flu but it’s kind of vague. There are no precise numbers about new cases or seriousness, just percentage change from past weeks and a general description of “flu activity.” Right now it’s “regional.”

There’s good reason for this: The data doesn’t exist. There’s no test for flu which gets administered to all people with symptoms, and even if there was, influenza isn’t a disease that medical folks are required to report.

So public health officials in New Hampshire and all other states estimate flu’s spread by taking reports on “influenza-like illness” and “acute respiratory syndrome” cases from hospitals or doctors offices and comparing them to past years, giving us a rough but useful picture.

I wonder if that is where we’re going with COVID-19.

We’ve all been poring over the state’s daily COVID numbers since the pandemic began – without them, this column wouldn’t exist – but the limits of data collection are becoming increasingly obvious.

Most recently the state said it will stop putting new deaths in their daily report and will go with a seven-day rolling average to avoid misleading fluctuations caused by paperwork delays that get reported as “30 new deaths yesterday – worst ever!”

That fluctuation is why this column has always used two-week running averages for deaths and new case counts. Not perfect, but less imperfect.

Then there’s the spread of at-home tests, results of which are not reported to anybody. These make the official daily new-case data much less relevant, even potentially misleading. That’s why the Associated Press recently told its staff to stop emphasizing case counts in stories.

There are even issues with hospitalization numbers, which I have often said are the most accurate gauge of the pandemic’s spread. They depend partly on how many treatment beds are available to take patients who no longer need hospitalization but can’t go home. This means they can fluctuate if, say, a new long-term care facility opens.

As the pandemic continues and, hopefully, shifts into a background problem, with fewer people getting tested, I suspect COVID reporting will shift to the flu model. Maybe they’ll reduce it to a weekly color swatch so we can say, “The COVID Flag is red this week. I think I’ll wear my mask to Shaw’s.”

I look forward to such a change. That will be a real sign that the pandemic has eased.

For coronavirus-related information and updates throughout the week, visit concordmonitor.com/coronavirus.

What’s the trend on the spread and impact of the disease? Continued bad.

Although I just told you not to depend too much on numbers, here they are:

The past two weeks have seen an average of 2,450 new cases a day, the highest tally ever taken from official data; between 6 and 7 deaths a day, roughly what it’s been since early December; and more than 430 people in hospital, a figure that was falling around the start of the year but has risen again.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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