What experts say about how to interpret COVID-19 data like positive cases, deaths and hospitalizations.

And what to avoid.

By Daphne Chen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
August 17, 2020

One day, Wisconsin sets a record for the most new cases since the pandemic began.

Days later, there are fewer cases than there have been in over a month.

As COVID-19 data in Wisconsin continues to go up and down, some use the numbers to reinforce popular but mistaken narratives about the virus. Others wonder what to make of it at all.

If you’re confused, public health experts say you’re not alone. The onslaught of coronavirus information — some helpful, some confusing, some outright false — has become a crisis within a crisis, one that public health experts are now calling an “infodemic.”

We also bombard readers with data, numbers and graphs daily in our stories and at our coronavirus tracking page. Here’s advice from public health experts, statistical modelers and epidemiologists to help you sift through it all.

Above all, experts say, be skeptical of simple narratives and aware of cognitive bias — a term that refers to our tendency to seek out and remember information that confirms our existing beliefs…

It’s best to look at a lot of numbers, and from more than one day

All these measures are important, said Sethi.

“It’s not wrong to look at one metric at a time, but then you have to digest all of that and see how does the total picture look,” Sethi said. “A picture is worth a thousand words, and the epidemic is worth a thousand metrics. We have to look at all of this holistically.”

Because coronavirus data can be messy with a lot of variation from day to day, it’s better to look at overall trends, experts advise. Most public health experts look at seven- or 14-day averages instead of single-day numbers.

“When there are blips in reporting or other data kinks to work through, those get ironed out more over a week’s time,” said Amanda Simanek, an epidemiologist with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and one of the experts running a Facebook group called Dear Pandemic aiming to answer the public’s questions about COVID-19. “You don’t want to be alarmed at just what’s happening today.”

Read the full article.