By Beau Evans
Gov. Brian Kemp urged Georgians Thursday to have patience with public health officials amid reports over questionable data-keeping methods for positive cases of coronavirus in the state.
The governor’s request came as the state Department of Public Health acknowledged in local news reports that it is combining test results for viral and antibody testing, which health experts worry could skew data trends that guide the state’s response and economic recovery.
At a news conference Thursday, Kemp said public health officials have been “working at breakneck speed” to collect testing data and organize the results in practical ways. That has led to some slip-ups in the way testing data has been presented on the agency’s website in recent weeks.
“We’re not perfect,” Kemp said. “We’ve made mistakes [and] when we do that, we’ll own that, change it and make sure people are aware of that.”
“Please afford them some patience and steer clear of personal attacks,” the governor added.
Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized for coronavirus has fallen sharply over the past several weeks to below 1,000 patients this week, marking a promising sign the virus may be slowing.
That trend comes as state officials are sending out more personal protective equipment to hospitals, creating a training program for disinfecting elderly care facilities and boosting staff for Georgia’s new contact-tracing program.
As of 1 p.m. Thursday, more than 40,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 1,754 Georgians.
For the last several weeks, Kemp has touted testing data that shows a declining trend in the number of people who have tested positive for coronavirus compared to those whose results were negative.
Mass testing to confirm whether a person has contracted coronavirus is critical for health officials to pinpoint where new outbreaks may be cropping up, as many people begin resuming aspects of their normal lives following Kemp’s May 1 decision to end the state’s mandatory shelter-in-place order.
But state health officials acknowledged this week that antibody test results are being grouped in with the total number of test results, according to multiple news outlets. Antibody testing is meant to find signs that a person may have contracted coronavirus in the past, not whether that person is currently infected like viral testing does. Lumping those antibody results with viral testing could make the state’s infection rate appear lower than it actually is.
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, said Thursday the agency is instituting checks to avoid future data errors as well as ways to improve the layout for its website, where the public has access to the data.
She also emphasized the tough task health officials have in collecting huge amounts of data each day from a variety of sources like private doctors and local hospitals.
“This is an unprecedented ask of surveillance to be this agile and expand this quickly,” Toomey said. “We’re working diligently.”
Toomey also stressed that officials are considering many different types of data and pieces of information, not just positive test results.
“A website or data here or there should not be the holy grail,” Toomey said. “It’s just one piece, one tool that we use.”
One new source of data being used by health officials to contain the virus is contact tracing, which tracks the interactions a person infected with coronavirus has had with other people.
Toomey said about 500 contact tracers have been hired so far, with another 500 tracers on track to be hired by mid-June. To date, those tracers have conducted interviews with more than 3,300 coronavirus-infected persons and identified more than 9,000 people with whom they interacted.
She said whether people agree to meet and share information with contact tracers will make the difference in the state’s ability to fight the disease into the future.
“It is the cooperation of the community that will make this effect, not how many people we have on board,” Toomey said.