Green checkmark? Red X? For DHHS, complicated data boils down to 2 options

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina health officials have boiled down mountains of complicated coronavirus-related statistics and information into two easily digestible options — a green checkmark, or a red X.

State leaders have been tracking four key metrics as they prepare for the transition into the first phase of a gradual reopening of the economy, and issuing those checks or Xs for each one at various times during the past few weeks based on how the data was trending at the time.

At no point has the report card shown four green checks, and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen told CBS 17 News on Wednesday that the state did not need the data equivalent of straight passing grades to move to the next stage of the reopening process. 

“We don’t have to have all green checks because … you have to look at a combination of these factors,” Cohen said, adding that on Tuesday “we didn’t have all green checks, but like I said, I feel comfortable with the stability in our numbers to be able to move us forward.”

Leaders have urged citizens and others to view those numbers through a long-term prism — as opposed to single-day snapshots.

“What is important is when you look at these trends and indicators over a 14-day period,” Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday. “That’s why it makes it a little bit difficult to make decisions ahead, and why you need to look at the data for about 14 days at least to determine really where you are.”

A CBS 17 News review of those scorecards has shown some of them to nevertheless be particularly volatile.

Officials are tracking the percentage of visitors to hospital emergency rooms who show symptoms of COVID-19. The state received a green check in that metric on April 23, a red X on April 30 and a green check Tuesday.

That data is gathered using the surveillance system historically used for seasonal influenza since both diseases have similar symptoms. A chart assembled by the state’s Disease Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool and updated weekly shows a V-shape — a steep decline from more than 4 percent in late March to roughly 2.5 percent on April 18, then an abrupt climb toward 3 percent on April 25 — in that metric. The next update in that report is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

DHHS says it is looking for “a continued downward trajectory” in that statistic.

Two other metrics flipped from Xs to checkmarks last week — the percent of total tests that come back positive, and the number of hospitalized patients. DHHS wants a 14-day downward trajectories in both the positive test rate, and the hospitalization numbers.

The data shows a steady decline in the positive test rate, dropping from 13 percent in late April to 6 percent in the latest update. The hospitalization average — which has steadily increased during the past month — appear to have leveled, with CBS 17 News independently calculating that 14-day average at 498 on Wednesday, the third straight day it has lingered near 500.

The only metric not to show a green check is the daily count of new cases, with DHHS hoping for either a downward trajectory over 14 days or a sustained leveling in new cases.

Those daily numbers have fluctuated wildly, with the CBS 17 News calculation climbing to 396 on Wednesday after six straight days in the 360s or 370s.

“We see our surveillance indicators and those early warning detection metrics still continuing to go down, we see our percent positive going down, we see our hospitalization largely be stable,” Cohen said. “Those are all good things. However we do still do see our case counts, day over day, going up slightly. So we know the virus is here with us, which is why we have to make sure to take care as we do these additional things with Phase 1 … I think if we can do all those things, our numbers are going to stay stable.”

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