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Trends, Not Daily Numbers, Give Better Perspective Of NC's Fight Against COVID-19

We’ve grown accustomed to reading North Carolina’s daily coronavirus numbers, but those can be misleading. Here's a look at what the state’s overall trends show.

How Can Daily Numbers Be Misleading?

First, there’s lag time between when someone takes a coronavirus test and when they get a result. So, a person tested on a Thursday may not get the result until Monday or later, and the day they get the result would be included in the “daily new coronavirus cases” that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports.

On its website, the state health department also tracks the number of positives based on the day a person was tested, or “date of specimen collection.” The specimen collection date on Thursday showed that the July 7 specimen collection date had the highest number of positive cases at 2,810.

Also, most -- but not all -- hospitals in North Carolina report the number of COVID-19 patients in their facilities to the state on a daily basis. For example, on Thursday, the state said 90% of hospitals were reporting.

How Many People Are Going To The Emergency Room For COVID-19 Symptoms?

Officials consider the percentage of people who go to the emergency room with COVID-like symptoms as the first indicator of possible new coronavirus cases. State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said on Thursday the number has been declining since mid-July.

What About Daily Coronavirus Cases?

On Thursday, the state reported 1,763 new positive coronavirus cases -- the highest number in about five days. But overall, the number of new cases is starting to trend downward. In July, the state reported a record high number of new daily cases at 2,481.

How Many People Are In The Hospital Because Of COVID-19?

Health and Human Services said hospitalizations are leveling off. Over the past seven days, between 1,105 and 1,129 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 on any given day.

The hospitalizations figure represents the total number of people reported to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Most -- but not all -- hospitals report that number to the health department daily.

The number does not necessarily mean the number of new people hospitalized each day. A person in the hospital with COVID-19 for a week is counted in the hospitalizations number each day that he or she is there, not just the first day.


What Percent Of Coronavirus Tests Are Positive?

On Thursday, the percent positive was 7%. Cohen said this figure has been trending slightly downward but said she would prefer a number closer to 5%.

What Was The Testing Data Error Reported Wednesday?

On Wednesday, Health and Human Services reported it has performed about 221,000 fewer coronavirus tests than it previously reported. 

The company LabCorp said it was accidentally including tests that it processed from out-of-state in the total number of tests that it manually reported to the state. That made the number of tests look higher than it actually was in North Carolina.

Does The Error Affect NC’s Coronavirus Trends?

No. Health and Human Services gets data from reporting labs in two ways: electronically and manually, like via fax.

The state uses the data submitted electronically to calculate trends like percent positive and the total number of positive cases. Cohen said on Wednesday that the testing that data LabCorp submitted electronically were correct.

The mistake was in the numbers the lab submitted by hand, which the state uses to determine the total number of tests completed. It corrected the total number of tests on Wednesday.

What’s Next?

Cohen said Thursday she’ll be watching closely in the next few weeks since many students are returning to schools and colleges. She said more people in close contact at these places could mean more viral spread. Gov. Roy Cooper’s latest executive order extending Phase 2 is set to expire on Sept. 11.

Click here for the latest coronavirus news on WFAE’s live blog.

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What questions do you have about the coronavirus? What has this experience been like for you? Share your questions below._

Copyright 2020 WFAE

Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literture and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. In her free time, Claire likes listening to podcasts and trying out new recipes.