Editorial: Change in way state reports COVID-19 cases cause for concern
Illinois' COVID-19 numbers have taken an alarming turn in recent days -- and not just because of the very real spike in cases.
Rising numbers are a continuing source of concern. But a change in the way the state reports those numbers and a massive one-day data dump have clouded an already worrisome picture.
Back in June, the state began reporting on probable cases of COVID-19, separating those results from cases that had been confirmed using standard tests. That, however, changed last Friday when the Illinois Department of Public Health spread nearly 8,000 "probable cases" among the state's county case totals.
IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike explained that the state added those probable cases under the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Probable counts -- labeled that way early on to include symptomatic patients who were treated or died without being tested -- now include people who test positive using newer "rapid-result" antigen tests, which are more susceptible to false positives.
To make matters more confusing -- and troubling -- IDPH dropped "all the probable cases since the beginning of the pandemic" into last Friday's totals, Ezike said.
As reporter Jake Griffin pointed out in his story Thursday, that amounted to an additional 7,673 cases lumped together with more than 10,000 new cases announced from standard tests, artificially inflating already high infection rates.
We agree that the state should report probable cases, but not by simply lumping them together with confirmed cases. Separating cases or providing percentage breakdowns would in no way diminish their meaning. Rather, it allows all of us to better understand the threat of COVID-19 and respond to it.
Changing reporting methods in the middle of the pandemic dramatically alters the way experts and residents track the virus -- which, of course, impacts decisions on how to stem the spread.
In addition, the recent change has fueled suspicions from those who think numbers are being manipulated to make the virus look worse than it is. And that is a very serious problem, especially if they use their doubts as justification for ignoring much-needed precautions.
It doesn't help that reporters are finding it harder to get answers from state officials.
At the start of the pandemic, daily news conferences with Ezike and Gov. J.B. Pritzker were must-see TV for worried Illinoisans. The governor's early actions and frequent appearances were much appreciated. But in the months since, communication has seemed more scripted and less comprehensive. We are increasingly given the impression that decisions regarding the virus are unilateral and unequivocal, and that approach fuels distrust and resentment.
Make no mistake: The threat this virus poses is real. Cases are surging. People are dying, and the heartbreaking death toll will continue to grow -- through 2020 and beyond. Officials are absolutely right to take it seriously and respond vigorously.
Still, we need more collaboration and deserve more consistent clarity to get through this pandemic. That starts with clearly defined data.