Wobbly stats guide NC’s COVID-19 path

Healthy skepticism is in short supply during the global pandemic as our state leaders make sweeping statements without almost anyone asking: how do you know that?

While I recently read that Gov. Roy Cooper believes relaxing social distancing restrictions would be a “catastrophe” and that Health and Human Services Director Dr. Mandy Cohen has determined that “structural racism” explains why African-Americans are contracting and dying from Covid-19 at higher rates than whites, I did see any of their supporting evidence.

So I asked their spokespeople.

Gov. Cooper’s office sent an April 3 study by a range of local experts predicting the health impacts of maintaining or lifting the current restrictions. The authors’ stress that they are dealing with a great deal of uncertainty in an unprecedented situation – indeed, while they projected that North Carolina would have 5,500 to 6,500 confirmed cases by April 15, the official total was 5,123 (that’s 7 percent below their low-end estimate, 21 percent lower than the higher number.)

The core of the study – the basis for Cooper’s claims of a “catastrophe” – are its projections for June 1. It estimates that:

  • If we maintain the current restrictions there is a 25 percent chance that acute care bed capacity in the state will be insufficient. If we lift all restrictions, that probability rises to 50 percent.
  • Under current restrictions, it estimates that “250,000 North Carolinians may be infected by June 1. If we lift the restrictions at the end of April, “the model’s composite estimates indicate” that number could rise three-fold, to 750,000, by June 1. The study also notes that these estimates include “unconfirmed infections” among our 10.5 million residents.

Catastrophe is in the eye of the beholder, but it is important to note that researchers believe it is likely our health care system could handle the additional cases if all restrictions were lifted – the report does not address scenarios in which just some were removed.

Also note they do not address the clear economic consequences of the current lockdown – and neither does Cooper. Are the myriad costs of the current policy worth the benefits? Perhaps they are. But it is long past time for the Governor to move past alarmist language and detail his calculation of the many factors in play.

Dr. Cohen’s claims regarding “structural racism” and the virus are more problematic. She invoked the term – which attributes a myriad of disparities between whites and blacks to systemic racism rather than personal behavior – in a front page article to explain why African Americans in North Carolina and around the country are contracting COVID-19 and dying from the disease at a higher rate than whites. She did not, however, offer specific evidence.

She did suggest that our state’s refusal to expand Medicaid was a factor.

I asked her office for data showing that African-Americans who did not benefit from Medicaid expansion are more likely to get and die from the virus – and whether they are more likely to be uninsured.

They did not that data. Instead, it seemed clear that Dr. Cohen was applying, without solid evidence, a general belief about health care disparities to explain the very specific problem of COVID-19.

In the midst of a medical crisis, our leaders should not play politics with science. They should tell us what they know and acknowledge the many uncertainties. If, after that, they tell us they are also going to offer their own interpretation of that evidence (which is their right, and maybe their duty), then fine.

But pretending their opinion is science invites catastrophe.

I am a web developer, web designer, software engineer with a fascination of technology and the rapid changes in technology and how our lives are changing and being changed by technology. I look for opportunities to utilize technology to improve lives and make a difference in the world whenever I can.

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