The COVID 'Spike' in Reopened Texas: CNN Gets It Wrong

ANALYSIS
The COVID 'Spike' in Reopened Texas: CNN Gets It Wrong
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
The COVID 'Spike' in Reopened Texas: CNN Gets It Wrong
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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On Sunday CNN ran a segment on the spread of COVID-19 in Texas. The news channel promoted it with the jarring tweet “Texas is seeing the highest number of new coronavirus cases and deaths just two weeks after it officially reopened.” The segment spotlighted 1,448 new cases and 58 new deaths, and noted the increased movement of people in the state according to cellphone data, illustrating that the public was increasingly out and about.

While technically true, this information is horribly misleading, and to the extent CNN is trying to establish a causal connection between Texas’ reopening and the increase in coronavirus diagnoses and deaths in the Lone Star State, it is simply wrong. It is so wrong that it is difficult to give the benefit of the doubt here. There are three reasons for this.

First, deaths are a trailing indicator. COVID-19 does not kill quickly; the average time to death from infection varies by source, but somewhere between three and four weeks is the average. In other words, the deaths in Texas over the weekend were mostly seeded before the reopening.

Second, consider the following three charts, which use data taken from the indispensable COVID Tracking Project. The first shows the seven-day rolling average of cases in Texas. We use the seven-day average because states are inconsistent in reporting data, so what might appear to be a massive one-day spike could simply reflect cases that weren’t updated fully over the weekend, or other anomalies in the data reporting process. Indeed, things look pretty grim here. (Click the charts to enlarge them.)

Daily cases in Texas are on the upswing. However, note that the current spike appears to have started before Texas reopened a couple of weeks ago (since this is a seven-day average, the upward trajectory in infections probably starts in mid-April), which complicates any causal assertion.

But in a world where everyone who wants a test still can’t get one (and there are good reasons why they shouldn’t), these data aren’t terribly meaningful. If tests are becoming more widely available, we might expect more positive diagnoses. This is true even if the actual number of cases are flat, or even declining. Indeed, the seven-day average of tests processed in Texas is increasing at a rapid pace.

To better understand this, consider an extreme case: Assume that the number of cases in a state is constant, but because of testing limitations only the most serious cases are detected. Then, assume that one day that state is suddenly able to test all of its residents. You would see a massive explosion in cases diagnosed, even though the actual number of cases would be the same. In fact, if the expansion of tests is fast enough, we could even see an increase in cases diagnosed as the total number of cases declined.

Of course, the causal arrow runs both ways here: It is also true that as infections increase, more people will demand tests, which will increase the number of tests given. This story makes sense in a place like New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stated that the state has more tests than it knows what to do with, and has asked people to get tested. It is less sensible in Texas, which has given only about 600,000 tests in a state of 29 million.

One way to help sort this out is to look at the percentage of tests that are positive. A declining rate of positive tests suggests that this really is a story of a wider net being cast, rather than increased infections driving testing. Indeed, that’s what we see in Texas, where the percentage of tests being returned positive is at a two-month low.

Third, and finally, CNN fails to examine important granularity in the Texas data, which makes it very unlikely that the surge in cases is being driven by increased spread. Consider the following chart, which provides the total number of cases in Texas, by county, for all counties with more than 400 cases:

 

If you’re familiar with the state’s geography, most of these county names will be familiar, and their inclusion on a list of counties with the most cases will be unsurprising since they are among the most heavily populated counties in the state: Harris (Houston), Dallas (Dallas), Tarrant (Fort Worth), Travis (Austin), and Bexar (San Antonio). Three, however, stick out as unusual and unrelated to other counties with similar numbers of cases: Potter (Amarillo), which has roughly 5% of the population of Bexar County; Randall County (South Amarillo), which has roughly a third of the population of Lubbock; and Moore County (rural panhandle), which has roughly 7% of the population of Webb County (Laredo).

 

Not only are these counties unusual, but they’ve seen surges in cases recently. Take a look at this chart, which shows cumulative Texas cases by county, with the three “odd” counties highlighted:

 

The large metro areas -- Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio -- are seeing increased cases, but the rate of increase has remained virtually unchanged since early May. That is to say, they’ve been adding roughly the same number of cases every day for the last few weeks (recall too that most people don’t show symptoms for a few days post-infection, so this is a bit of a trailing indicator). The places where we might expect to see a breakout related to reopening are roughly unchanged.

 

Randall and, in particular, Potter counties show a large bump in cases. This bump occurred on May 16, which is the day that CNN was hyping on its show. These two counties alone account for about half of the new cases reported on that day.

What CNN has probably discovered is not that Texas’ reopening is driving an increase in cases.  Instead, it seems to have discovered yet another outbreak in meatpacking plants, a story on which CNN has reported elsewhere and which has been covered in the Lone Star State for going on a month now. These outbreaks should not be waved away; they represent a genuine problem, though this problem is mitigated by the fact that there are relatively few sick and/or elderly workers on meatpacking floors. At the same time, it has very little to do with the merits of re-opening the economy at this point.

Getting this right is important because the stakes are incredibly high here. The only way we get this right, however, is if we’re supplied with a proper balance of good news and bad news. Right now, much of the media is in full bore “bad news” mode. 

This skewed information diet makes it difficult to sort things out correctly, but it has an additional negative consequence. The viewer/reader will decide for him- or herself whether this is misfeasance or malfeasance on CNN’s part, but regardless, at this point in the pandemic it ought to know to check things like the testing rate and whether there are idiosyncratic outbreaks in prisons or meatpacking plants. If you are someone who believes that the media has an important gatekeeping function in slowing the spread of misinformation and disinformation, then having a major media company spreading what is dangerously close to disinformation impairs that function and erodes overall public confidence in an important institution for democracy.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.



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