WASHINGTON — Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp needed a way to show that he hadn’t been rash to reopen restaurants, theaters, nail salons and the like in late April.
His administration came up with a creative solution. They doctored the statistics.
Last week, Georgia’s Department of Public Health released a graph showing a dramatic, steady decline in cases, deaths and hospitalizations in the state’s five most affected counties, from a peak on April 28, just before the state’s restrictions were eased, to near zero two weeks later.
But on closer inspection, the dates on the chart showed a curious ordering: April 30 was followed by May 4; May 5 was followed by May 2, which was followed by May 7 — which in turn was followed by April 26. The dates had been re-sorted to create the illusion of a decline. The five counties were likewise re-sorted on each day to enhance the illusion.
Only in Brian Kemp’s Georgia is the first Thursday in May followed immediately by the last Sunday in April. And only in President Trump’s America would we have the producers of such flimflam leading the reopening of our national economy.
The governor’s office apologized for what state Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat, properly called a “cuckoo” presentation of data. But as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, it was the third such “error” in as many weeks involving sloppy counting of cases, deaths and other measures tracking COVID-19. Another official state chart continues to show cases dropping dramatically over 14 days, with an asterisk explaining that “confirmed cases over the last 14 days may not be accounted for due to illnesses yet to be reported or test results may still be pending.”
Those who cheer the reopening, citing this sort of faulty data, call Georgia’s reopening a triumph and say those (like me) who raised cautions were dead wrong. The Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman said the “Georgia Model” is “an encouraging escape from lockdown” which he hopes “can inspire people to resume necessary activities.”
The conservative site “Newsbusters” went with this headline: “Milbank’s Bunk: Georgia Defies Liberal ‘#1 Death Destination’ Predictions.”
Take away Georgia’s deceptions and it appears the state has been on a plateau for the past few weeks. That’s better than an increase, but this is a reflection of the shutdown in April, not the reopening since then. The statistics are necessarily delayed by two weeks, or more: It takes up to 14 days to show symptoms, another delay before test results come back, another possible lag before hospitalization, a further lag until a victim dies and yet another delay until the death is reported. As the oft-disparaged public-health experts have said all along, the virus can spread undetected for some time after a relaxing of restrictions before explosive, exponential growth occurs.
But now much of the nation is following Georgia in reopening. Trump cheers the abandonment of restrictions, saying “This is going to go away without a vaccine.” His son Eric revives the idea that the virus is a Democratic hoax, saying the pandemic “will magically, all of a sudden, go away and disappear” after the election in November.
And the White House appears to be preparing mass-production of the sort of deception Georgia has attempted. It forced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shelve guidelines for the reopening. And now, the Daily Beast reports, Trump, task force coordinator Deborah Birx and others are trying to force the CDC to revise downward its official death toll. Though the official count is almost certainly an undercount, the president seems to think that a lot of people who appear to die from coronavirus are actually “killed by other unnatural means, such as falling down a flight of stairs.”
Apparently Trump would have us believe the 2020 stair-falling season has been unusually severe.
We’d all be relieved and delighted if the scientists turned out to be wrong, and pandemic deaths decrease as workplaces reopen. Maybe warm summer weather will suppress some of the spread. But faking statistics won’t defeat the virus any more than taking hydroxychloroquine or ingesting Clorox.
As two Georgia Tech biologists wrote in Slate on Friday, Kemp justified reopening the state in late April with evidence that Georgia’s caseload was declining. But that turned out to be an artifact of the reporting lag: As more data came in, it turned out cases in Georgia were still rising. The lag continues to make current conditions look better than they are.
Kemp’s press secretary, apologizing for the doctored graph, said officials had thought it “would be helpful.” And it was, sort of: It helped to assure Georgians that everything is fine, while the state, followed by the whole country, flies blind.