Want to follow the march of COVID-19 in Kansas? Here are some ways to look at the statistics

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, holds up a map showing the spread of the novel coronavirus in the state by county, during a meeting of legislative leaders, Sunday, March 29, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The counties in blue have had confirmed cases, with the most recent cases in the darkest shade. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Numbers can make you dizzy if you look at them long enough. (If you watch them while standing around a roulette wheel, you can have the fun of being both dizzy and broke.) If you are feeling that way now, I probably can’t fix those conditions, but I can provide you some new ways to look at the state’s COVID-19 numbers.


The big number

The figure most focused on is the number of new cases confirmed in the state. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment updates that number every day. As of Monday’s update, there were 368 confirmed cases.

The number is worth following but, by itself, it isn’t great at helping the public understand the status of the virus. It becomes more helpful if you take the time to figure out how quickly the number of confirmed cases is growing.

On that front, here are three numbers to consider:

• March 15: 8 confirmed cases statewide

• March 22: 64 confirmed cases statewide

• March 29: 315 confirmed cases statewide

Looking quickly at those numbers, you’ll find the percentage growth rate from March 15 to March 22 was greater than the percentage growth rate from March 22 to March 29. That might make you feel better about Kansas’ situation, but should it? With a disease that affects people, it might be unwise to focus too much on percentages.

When you look at the numbers from a more people-oriented standpoint, they show that it took parts of 10 days for the virus to go from 8 cases to 100 cases. But it only took parts of three days for the virus to go from 100 cases to 200 cases, and it took only parts of two days for it go from 200 cases to 300 cases.

Looking at the numbers that way may not make you feel as good about Kansas’ situation.

The numbers, though, have some real limitations. The one talked about a lot nationally is the lack of availability of tests. Experts acknowledge the numbers would be much higher if more tests were available. More tests are becoming available each week, it seems. That’s good from a public health standpoint, but it complicates an analysis of the numbers. The numbers might be going up because the disease is spreading more quickly (a real possibility), but part of the increase in numbers might be because testing has become more available (also a real possibility.)

The other deficiency with the number is it doesn’t account for people who once had the virus but no longer are infected. For example, some of these 368 cases confirmed by the state are past the two-week period commonly cited as the recovery time for a mild case of COVID-19. The number of cases reported, though, never goes down. We don’t have a good estimate of how many of the 368 people are now no longer considered infected. Knowing that number could be important, especially if scientists do determine that once you get the virus it is really difficult for you to get it a second time.

The negative number

In addition to reporting the positive number of cases, KDHE also provides data on the number of people who have tested negative for the virus. As of today, about 92% of all tests have come back negative for the virus.

It is an important number to note because I do think there are some people who believe that at least 30% of the population is walking around with this virus already. The Kansas numbers don’t suggest that. As of March 30, 7.4% of all tests have come back positive, and this is from a group that presumably is being tested because they have some symptoms.

These numbers add some perspective about the likely prevalence of the virus at this moment. But the important thing to remember is that the situation is changing. These numbers provide a glimpse at how quickly it is changing. Here is a look at the progression of positive tests since March 24, when KDHE first started releasing the more detailed testing data:

• March 24: 4.4% of all tests were positive

• March 25: 5.0% of all tests were positive

• March 26: 5.5% of all tests were positive

• March 27: 5.8% of all tests were positive

• March 28: 6.6% of all tests were positive

• March 29: 7.0% of all tests were positive

• March 30: 7.4% of all tests were positive

To me, those numbers show the march of the virus better than the total number of cases. They’re still not a perfect set of numbers, but when those percentages of positive tests start to fall, we might have genuine reason to feel better.

The hospital number

Last week I wrote about KDHE releasing for the first time the number of cases that have resulted in somebody being hospitalized for COVID-19. These numbers also aren’t perfect, but they may be the best way for us to judge the prevalence of really serious COVID 19 cases, i.e. the type that could be fatal.

The state first started including hospitalization numbers in a March 27 release. It reported that 27 cases out 135 cases for which data was available had resulted in hospitalization. That’s a hospitalization rate of 20%. Here’s a look at the data since then.

• March 28: 50 of 175 cases; 28.5%

• March 29: 55 of 199 cases; 27.6%

• March 30: 66 of 228 cases: 28.9%

We still have a pretty small set of data to work with here, but so far these numbers aren’t showing a steady upward trend, at least not one as prevalent as the number of positive cases shows.

But, these numbers will mean a lot more in a couple of weeks when we have more data. I’m also waiting on an answer from KDHE about how it is collecting this data. For instance, it would be important to know what type of cases it has information on and what type it doesn’t.

Another thing to remember about the data: It appears these are cumulative numbers. In other words, the numbers don’t go down when someone gets released from the hospital. At some point, it will be helpful to know how many people are in the hospital at any given time with COVID-19, as that will provide some indication of whether the hospital system is at risk of becoming overcrowded.

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