Pandemic Data Are About to Go Sideways

Pandemic Data Are About to Go Sideways

States are likely to report fewer coronavirus cases, but not because things are getting better.

Recently, over the course of just one week, the Houston Health Department received more than 110,000 lab reports of COVID-19 test results. In a city of 2.3 million people, “it’s quite a high volume,” says Beau J. Mitts, the department’s bureau chief. Less than two-thirds of those lab reports flow automatically into the health department’s electronic system, according to Mitts. Another 35 percent arrive in digital form but must be imported into the city’s database, and the remainder arrive via fax.

All over the country, health departments are facing such influxes, and many are struggling to keep pace. The latest surge has earned the terrible distinction of having the highest number of daily cases and hospitalizations since the pandemic began. Now data-reporting delays caused by the Thanksgiving holiday and long weekend may provide a veneer of comfort—a seeming dip in cases—when the actual course of the pandemic in the coming days will almost certainly be much bleaker than the reported numbers show.

Our colleagues at the COVID Tracking Project have monitored how holidays and weekends can affect the daily reporting of tests, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths to public-health departments. As the project’s managing editor, Erin Kissane, wrote this week, the number of new COVID-19 cases reported on a Sunday or Monday—data that are actually collected on Saturday and Sunday—is typically several percentage points below the weekly average. These delays have several causes: Doctors’ offices may be closed or public-health departments may be short-staffed during the weekend, resulting in fewer tests being conducted, fewer positive cases being identified, and less data making their way onto the internet.