How raw numbers mask the effects of COVID-19

Media focus has been on how COVID-19 affects metro areas, but the drama of large numbers masks the profound impact this disease is having on rural America. Come with me to rural Georgia, where a five-county case rate was 1,174.5 per 100,000 on Sunday. The US average, 175.97.

COVID-19 raw numbers out of New York provide newsroom drama. Come with me to rural Georgia, where I will show you how the horror of this disease has been masked by standard news reporting.

With a population of about 80,000, Albany is the eighth-largest city in the state and serves as the regional hub. This is where I was born and raised.

On Monday, 15 March, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the regional hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial, had 65 patients who had been either diagnosed with coronavirus or were waiting for confirmation. Another 115 were waiting at home for test results.

Hospital CEO Scott Steiner told CNN that the hospital had used a five- or six-month stockpile of supplies, like personal protection equipment, in less than a week. He said that the outbreak spiked after two large funerals; the first one occurred on 29 February, the same day that a team in Seattle would report the nation’s first death from COVID-19. A team had begun sewing personal protective masks out of surgical sheeting.

“This event is unlike anything anyone has ever seen,” Steiner told the AJC.

Those numbers — 65 patients — sound insignificant, right? After all, on 15 March, Washington state had 642 cases. And Italy had 1,809 deaths.

But contextually, the story flips on its head.

Not quite a month ago, on day 54 since the first case of COVID-19 was identified, those 65 people represented a case rate of more than 700 per million. In my current home state, Washington’s 642 cases represented a case rate of only 8.4 per million. And Italy’s death rate, 29.9 per million.

Albany’s cases were one order of magnitude smaller in numbers but almost two orders of magnitude larger, proportionally, than the situation in Washington.

Gross numbers can mislead. A lot. (And we were still speaking in cases/million. Now it’s cases/100,000.)

Jump to 26 March.

Phoebe Putney reported 217 positive cases, 16 deaths and 1,319 people waiting for test results. If you use the larger population of the SMA, not just Albany or Dougherty County, the case rate had jumped to 1,356 million; the national rate was 259 per million.

The dark blue blob that represents coronavirus cases has spread like wildfire to encompass most of southwest Georgia, as you can see from this Sunday snapshot.


What happens when you analyze Georgia’s case rate by county, using population data? That’s the chart at the top of this page.


The five Georgia counties exhibiting the most severe outbreak are in this blue blob. On Sunday, those counties collectively had 103 cases; metro-Atlanta, 143 (nine-county area).

If news organizations report only raw numbers, they are presenting a false equivalency. Those five southwest counties have a population of 132,000; the nine-country metro-Atlanta area, 4.4 million.

  • Five-county case rate: 11,745 per million (1,174.5 per 100,000)
  • Metro-Atlanta case rate: 1,102.6 per million (110.26 per 100,000)
  • Georgia’s case rate: 1,182 per million (118.2 per 100,000)
  • US case rate: 1,759.7 per million (175.97 per 100,000)

Southwest Georgia is accustomed to natural disasters like tornadoes. Not a lingering, invisible foe. Kaiser details the experience of a small Louisiana hospital (25 beds) and reminds the reader that all hospitals, not just rural ones, are taking a serious – for some, catastrophic – financial hit with this disease. Even before COVID-19, 1-in-4 rural hospitals were “at high risk of closing due to financial challenges.”

Write a letter to the editor. Call the TV or radio station. Demand that news stories put COVID-19 statistics into context. The horror that the disease is inflicting on rural and poor areas like this one – and Louisiana, for example – is overshadowed by the drama provided by raw data from metropolitan areas like New York.

The situation in this poor, agricultural, heavily-black section of my home state is dire. If a rural area of any state becomes a hot spot, I fear that we will see this dual horror – decimation and sloppy reporting – happen there, too.

Analysis excerpted from my newsletter, Coronavirus Memo from a News Hound.
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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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