Most signs point to an improving COVID-19 situation in Texas—unless you consider the recently questionable elevated test positivity rate that’s keeping us from reopening.
On Aug. 13, Texas reported 6,879 hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide, the lowest number since June 30. And on that day, the Texas Medical Center in Houston had its 27th consecutive day of decline of the seven-day trend of daily COVID-19 patients hospitalized, with the average of hospitalizations being almost half of their peak. Texas’s seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases on August 13 was 38% off its July 14 peak.
Those are good signs but Texas’s testing positivity rate, the share of those tested for COVID-19 who test positive, surged to a seven-day average rate of 24.5% on Aug. 11. That’s well above the 10% rate that Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated the state needs to consistently maintain for bars and other shut-down businesses to reopen, and for capacity restrictions to be eased.
Dr. Ashish Jha, Professor of Global Health at Harvard, has suggested that “the outbreak in Texas may actually [have been] getting worse over the last week or so.” And the skyrocketing test positivity rate sparked a call by Gov. Abbott to bring in a special “data team” to examine what’s going on in the Lone Star state, which the positivity rate surprisingly fell by 8.4 percentage points that day to 16.1%.
But more context shows that Texas may be on the road to recovery—but is being held back by a dysfunctional data reporting system that obfuscates reality and distorts policy choices.
A recent analysis indicates that testing for COVID-19 remains on the upswing in most Texas counties, leading to a discrepancy between county and state data. The culprits for this discrepancy are tests labeled as “pending assignment,” which once numbered over a million but have decreased to roughly 476,000 as of Aug. 13.
Tests marked as “pending assignment” are recorded by the Texas Department of State Health Services but have not been assigned to a county. Previously, unassigned cases had been included as part of the state’s test rate calculations, but this appears to have been changed around July 31, when reported tests began to decline.
Furthermore, it’s not clear which date the state records to a test when they assign it to a county, resulting in new data illustrating a sharp increase in the test positivity rate when the outbreak seems to be improving.
Moreover, Gov. Abbott has suggested that the closure of some of the temporary testing sites in July may have influenced the figures. And testing centers in Austin and other areas were recently only testing symptomatic people.
It is commendable that the state is working to make its data as accurate as possible. But this effort lacks transparency, and that lack of transparency comes at a cost. The possibility exists that demand for COVID-19 tests has declined from what’s been called “COVID fatigue,” but the state’s data don’t make that clear.
Collectively, simple fractional math shows how some combination of these factors would contribute to driving up the positivity rate. Not only could this data create unnecessary fear among Texans (and reinforce the mainstream media’s panic-oriented narrative), it could also hamper efforts to revive the Texas economy.
While many Texas businesses have been permitted to reopen or restart at limited capacity (allowing the economy to begin its long road to recovery), bars are still suffering from the effects of the lockdown. This has also forced about 1,500 restaurants, which employ roughly 35,000 people, to close because alcohol sales exceeded 51% of their total revenue.
The implications extend beyond bars, as the flawed test positivity rate reporting influences general capacity restrictions, outdoor gatherings, and mask mandates, along with the reopening of schools and professional sporting facilities.
For Texans, lockdown orders are more than just policy decisions; they can determine the fate of our lives, livelihoods, and the futures of our children.
Texas shouldn’t determine reopening guidelines based on flawed metrics. Texas has worked to conquer COVID-19, and it deserves a data reporting system that accurately represents the facts. This would help direct targeted policies, instead of blanket ones, to help vulnerable populations so we can safely reopen.
Otherwise, Texas risks permanent economic and health damage, not just because of the pandemic itself, but also because of bureaucratic inefficiencies within the state’s data reporting system.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.