TUESDAY, DECEMBER 8, 2020
New York gets a Covid stat wrong: The youthful analysts' youthful cheers rang loudly through our halls.
Last evening, at 6 P.M. Eastern, Wolf Blitzer did the highly improbable. Somehow, he managed to get a Covid statistic right!
He even managed to make it look easy. In fairness, it pretty much is:
BLITZER (12/7/20): Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. We're following breaking news.
Seventy-nine years after 2,400 Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Covid-19 is now killing almost as many people on average in the United States each day. More than 1,000 have already been reported today, and the toll has now surpassed 283,000 people, as the country is rapidly approaching 15 million confirmed coronavirus cases.
Those numbers will get worse and worse in the coming weeks...
It isn't hard to do! Blitzer didn't lead with the number of people reported dead on some particular day. Instead, he stressed the average number of deaths each day over the course of the previous week.
(According to the numbers at the Washington Post, the average number of daily deaths for that week was 2,215. Technically, that's the average number of deaths which were reported, or recorded, during that seven-day period. Most likely, it's very close to the average number of Covid deaths which actually occurred.)
Blitzer didn't cherry-pick the number of deaths for some particular day. Because reporting delays occur on weekends, doing so tends to be grossly misleading, with weekend numbers artificially low and the subsequent weekday numbers artificially high.
Not long ago, the endlessly gruesome Kayleigh McEnany was cherry-picking (low) weekend numbers to try to con us into thinking the pandemic wasn't that bad. Just last week, cable stars like Rachel Maddow were reporting an (artificially high) weekday number right after the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, producing the story we prefer—the pandemic is worse than we thought.
So it has gone as performers have played dueling reindeer games with this gruesome pandemic. (Do they know they're cherry-picking? We have no idea!)
Last evening, Blitzer was thoroughly competent. He led with the only death count which is journalistically respectable—the average number of daily deaths over a 7- or 14-day span.
Though shocked, the analysts lustily cheered. Shortly, though, alas!
Within the next hour, we read this report in New York Magazine. In the main, Robin Lloyd was describing the major shortcomings of another commonly cited Covid statistic. We refer to the so-called "positivity rate"—the percentage of Covid tests in some jurisdiction which turn out to be positive.
All year, we've been puzzled by the widespread use of that statistic. In her piece, Lloyd was describing some of the problems with the statistic—problems which had long struck us as obvious.
To our ear, Lloyd was rolling along reasonably well. But then, ohourgod—she wrote this:
LLOYD (12/7/20): [M]ost researchers avoid relying on any single number such as the positivity rate to understand the status of a community’s outbreak, preferring to examine it alongside other statistics, such as the number of and trend direction for positive coronavirus cases in a community...
For instance, it would be misleading to base policy on South Dakota’s 448 new infections reported on December 1 without also looking at its eye-popping positivity rate of 42.5 percent. Together, these numbers start to paint a picture of a runaway outbreak and insufficient testing. By contrast, New York state on the same day reported over 16 times more new infections (7,413). In the context of the state’s 3.7 percent positivity rate that day, it could suggest a more controlled outbreak and enough testing to inform efforts to control or respond to transmission.
"By contrast, New York state on the same day reported over 16 times more new infections?"
Why would a journalist write something like that, and why would an editor publish it? Needless to say, the analysts were now weeping and howling, and tearing their hair once again.
One hour earlier, Blitzer had the youngsters cheering. But as we've told you, Covid statistics are amazingly hard for our upper-end press elite!
This is an anthropology lesson. More on this matter to follow...