Another Headline about ‘More New Virus Cases!’ That Ignores the Increasing Number of Tests

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staffmember wearing protective gear administers a test for the COVID-19 coronavirus at a test facility in a tent outside Skane University Hospital in Lund, Sweden, April 29, 2020. (TT News Agency/Johan Nilsson via Reuters)

Newsweek offers a classic of the bad-reporting-of-coronavirus genre, declaring, “Wisconsin’s New Coronavirus Cases Rise As People Flock To Reopened Bars After Court Overturns Stay-At-Home Order.”

From that headline, you might think that the new cases are because Wisconsinites are flocking to bars because of the court overturning the state stay-at-home order.

To give writer Jacob Jarvis credit, he at least acknowledges early in the piece, “The freshly reported cases are of infections that predate the end of Wisconsin’s lockdown.” But he gravely warns the state’s “cumulative cases throughout the pandemic rose to 11,275, with 373 of those recorded on Thursday, the third-largest daily peak for the month.”

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Thursday, May 14 was also the day the state did the most tests — 5,487. The percentage of tests coming back positive has actually declined by half over the past two weeks, from 12.7 percent to 6.4 percent. If you do more tests, you will get more positive results. The media are inadvertently creating a disincentive to conducting more tests, because every state that increases its testing finds more cases, generating “Cases Are Up, The Oubreak Is Getting Worse!” headlines.

The Thursday total of new cases is the highest since . . . well, the previous Friday, which had 375. The worst day of the month for new cases was May 1, with 460! The sentence is “Thursday’s total of 373 new cases is down 19 percent from the beginning of the month” is equally accurate. There’s not really a clear pattern in the Wisconsin numbers; Monday and Tuesday were particularly low — perhaps cases diagnosed over the weekend get reported less quickly. The seven-day average has been pretty flat.

Wisconsin is doing a pretty good job of making updated data publicly available. As of this writing, the state’s hospitals are at 69 percent capacity, with 68 percent of current coronavirus patients not in the intensive care unit. There are 1,260 ventilators on hand. If the number of cases needing serious care go up in the coming days or weeks, the state appears to have the resources to handle it.

Looking at it all, the state is doing . . . generally okay. Would you rather not see bar patrons shoulder-to-shoulder on social media? Sure. But the country is wrapping up week nine of these measures. The longer and tighter you try to keep people bottled up, the more pressure will build for a release.

But we know what narrative Daily Beast readers want to hear: “Big dumb Republican-led state supreme court ignores science, recklessly overturns Democratic governor’s wise restrictions on bars, dumb Wisconsinites will die.” Reopening bars could well be a bad decision, particular if patrons don’t make any efforts at social distancing. But it is hard to see why that is exponentially more dangerous than, say, riding the New York City subway right now.


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