Georgia testing data skewed by antibody tests

Source: Valdosta Daily Times COVID-19 Database

ATLANTA — The rate of positive COVID-19 cases in Georgia is much higher than has been reported.

Since early April, the state Department of Public Health has been including both antibody and viral tests for the novel coronavirus in its total test count — the two are not the same.

Antibody tests reveal signs of previous infection while the standard viral swab test shows current infection. With the inflated testing numbers that the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer first reported, Georgia’s positive case rate looks much smaller than what it actually is.

The news came after weeks of skepticism surrounding the department's data, including a misleading graph that showed a decline in cases but had an x-axis that was not in chronological order.

Gov. Brian Kemp has touted the state's improvement in testing. In the early weeks of the pandemic, strict requirements limited the number of people who could get tested, but in recent weeks officials announced unused testing capacity and begged Georgians to seek out tests.

The Republican governor has repeatedly said Georgia has moved up the rankings in states with the most testing per capita. At the end of March, Georgia ranked at almost the bottom — 46th. On April 13, Kemp said testing numbers continue to “frustrate.”

“Despite our partnerships and undeniable progress, our testing numbers in Georgia continue to lag,” he said. “As I've said before the status quo is unacceptable.”

And testing did increase — skyrocketing during the past month — according to analysis of health department testing numbers by The Valdosta Daily Times. The average number of new tests performed in a two-week period rose dramatically during an eight-week period.

Georgia averaged 2,327 new tests daily between March 26 and April 8 and rose 58% the following two weeks — April 9-22 — for an average of 3,956 new tests. The following two periods nearly doubled with 7,862 new tests from April 23 to May and another doubling to 14,200 new tests between May 7-20.

Since that time, Kemp has opened many of his regular coronavirus press conferences with the state’s improved rankings. As of Monday, the governor’s office announced the state has moved up to 21st out of the 44 states and territories counted in testing per capita that have tested 3.3% of the population for coronavirus.

But the numbers are much lower if the antibody tests are removed from the total test count.

The Department of Public Health confirmed Wednesday it has included antibody tests in the total test count based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for two months.

The number of antibody tests included in the more than 404,000 test count is 57,000, inflating the testing total by roughly 14%. The department will soon update the daily status report to reflect antibody tests separately from viral tests, it said.

Both Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, addressed the data issues during a press conference Thursday and said state officials are "committed to full transparency."

Kemp said Toomey's team is working "around the clock" to produce data.

"They are taking massive amounts of data from countless sources, putting them into accessible format, under a global spotlight," he said. "All at breakneck speed. Please afford them some patience. And please, steer clear of personal attacks. We are all in this fight together."

Kemp asked the public to give the department some leeway.

"I just want people to know they can be confident in the data, but also look, we're not perfect. We make mistakes and when we do that, we'll own that, change it and make sure that people are aware of that," he said.

Toomey said the "integrity" of the department's data is its "number one priority."

"We have to have transparency — we're continuing to work to improve all of our reporting systems. That is what is going to give us the ability to respond adequately," she said. "Having multiple, actual, accurate data is our top priority for public health, and to make that available to the public, to decision-makers, to the media, and we will continue to do that as we move forward and hopefully with even greater agility."

Toomey said collecting public health data is in no way an easy task but recognized the need to earn the public's trust.

"Data are only useful if whoever's looking at it can understand and get the implication of what we're trying to say," she said. "It's not useful if only I as a trained epidemiologist can use it."

The Atlantic magazine said Thursday that states making this mistake are following CDC guidance. The top infection control agency has been conflating the two tests across the nation, data which states are using as a benchmark to reopen their economies.

Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Valdosta Daily Times reporter Chris Herbert contributed to this report.

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