Since we began breaking down COVID-19 cases, deaths and other data in Cobb County and specifically East Cobb, we’ve been getting queries from readers imploring us to dig further into the numbers.
Some think the seriousness of the virus is overstated considering the high number of people who test negative and the very high percentage of those who recover.
They worry that a slide back into lockdowns would not only devastate the local economy, but some wonder if there isn’t an intent to close things down until after the November elections.
Others think we’re not doing enough to illustrate the spread of a virus that’s killed and sickened far too many people, and that we should hunker down until the case numbers decline, or a vaccine is developed.
Most just want to know how to better understand numbers that are floating around in incredible quantities, and from an increasing variety of sources.
The biggest problem is the limited range of the data that is community-specific, and especially pertaining to East Cobb.
On Friday a total of 339 new COVID-19 cases were reported in Cobb County, a weekday single-day high since the Georgia Department of Public Health began issuing daily updates in March.
Those reflect a sharp spike in cases across Georgia, which was the first to “reopen” from substantial shelter-in-place mandates in April.
(A total of 556 new cases were reported in Cobb on Monday, July 6, reflecting a lag due to the Independence Day holiday weekend.)
As of Friday in Cobb County, there were 6,708 confirmed cases of COVID-19, fourth-highest in Georgia, and 250 deaths, second only to Fulton County.
On Saturday, Cobb’s case count rose by 232, to 6,950 cases, and three more deaths were added, for 253 overall.
Those are staggering numbers, and some readers have been asking us what exactly do they mean? It’s easy to see graphs and charts showing big jumps in cases alone and get very jittery. How concerned should we be?
What’s the larger context we should be thinking about? Who’s getting the most sick and dying the most, and who’s experiencing only mild symptoms or none at all?
This more recent crest of cases—which is disproportionately affecting younger age groups—is not bringing with it the death rates we saw in the spring, when many elderly and at-risk people were the primary casualties.
They still are. But you’ve got to go the state public health website to find that out, and count out literally one-by-one.
The Cobb and Douglas Public Health website, like the state’s, has a lot of valuable information, but quite often it’s hard to parse data that readers say they want us to examine.
CDPH breaks down cases by age group, but not deaths. It also tracks the test positivity rate (how many people test positive against all those it tests), which is at 6.76 percent in Cobb, up from around five percent just a few weeks ago.
Those are figures noted by Dr. Janet Memark, director of Cobb and Douglas Public Health, who issued a public health alert last week as a result.
CDPH has tested 18,571 people in Cobb County. If you factor in those 253 deaths, that’s 1.36 percent of people in Cobb who’ve been tested for the virus—at least by our public health agency—who’ve died.
If you measure deaths against what as of Saturday is now 6,940 positive cases (what’s called a case fatality rate), that figure is 3.6 percent.
Cobb government’s Geographic Information Systems department also has been tracking COVID numbers, focusing mostly on data stemming from case and death counts.
How many of those who are testing positive these days are seriously ill? Beyond hospitalization numbers, which have been going up in Cobb and elsewhere in Georgia but are still considered manageable, that’s unclear.
How many people have mild or no symptoms at all also isn’t known. Since anyone is being encouraged to get tested, it would be helpful to know how many asymptomatic cases there are. But that’s data that isn’t readily available.
In East Cobb, we’ve had 1,271 confirmed cases of the virus, and 44 deaths. That’s up from 1,034 and 41 a week ago. But that’s about all that we know, for now.
As we noted in that last report, 16 of those deaths were in ZIP Code 30068, in East Cobb, which has a number of long-term care homes.
While that information has been helpful, it’s become public only in recent weeks. There’s nothing more in the ZIP Code data to indicate the infection rate (those who test positive against those tested) and the case fatality rate.
We don’t even know the age, gender or racial breakdowns by ZIP Code, or how many of those cases involved people with other underlying health issues.
This is information that might calm the fears of many citizens, fears that have been skyrocketing in recent weeks.
Right before Friday’s numbers came out, Cobb Commission Chairman Mike Boyce said he wouldn’t issue a mask mandate, as some mayors have done in Georgia, because he thinks it’s unenforceable.
After Friday’s numbers were reported, the Cobb County School District issued revised reopening plans that do not require staff or students to wear masks.
That’s set off a firestorm of emotion and anxiety that figures to get even more heated before classes start next month.
How masks became such a fraught issue is a topic for another column, but it does show the continuing uncertainty, not just over data, but how to interpret it and how to develop strategies to combat the virus.
We are drowning in data without having a better understanding of it. Other data that might better explain how many people seriously become sick, or not, is harder to come by.
Yet politicians and public health officials keep peddling the same pedestrian messages they have since March—wash your hands, practice social distancing, and wear a mask in public.
Gee, thanks Mom.
After four months, this is all they can still say? This isn’t reassuring the public any more than continuing to extend emergency orders, as the governor and judges have done, at least until August, and possibly into the fall.
How much longer will business owners, employees, students and parents, religious worshippers, sports fans and everyday citizens be told to continue placing their lives and well-being on indefinite hold?
How much longer will there be public demands to mask up, and lock down, healthy people? Especially school children, who are in an age group with the fewest virus cases of all? Is this even a good thing for our society to expect?
The numbers are all over the place, begging to be better organized, and so are the reactions to a crisis that seems to have no end.
Cobb County appears to be in good shape, based on data that goes beyond raw case and death counts.
However, those are the metrics that dominate government response, media coverage and good bit of public opinion.
They’re also feeding a social contagion that’s sweeping through our country faster than COVID-19, and that might be the most difficult outbreak of all to contain.
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