Georgia’s Public Health Agency Faces Eroding Trust After Data Issues

Gov. Brian Kemp said that people should be confident in the state’s coronavirus numbers.
Gov. Brian Kemp said that people should be confident in the state’s coronavirus numbers.
Credit Brynn Anderson / Associated Press

A few weeks ago, it was a bar chart on the Georgia Department of Public Health’s “COVID-19 Daily Status Report” web page that seemed to show confirmed COVID-19 cases going down in Georgia’s hardest-hit counties, but that had its days all out of order. 

Then a drop in cases last weekend that DPH later explained was because of a processing error. 

Earlier this week, the agency confirmed it was combining two different kinds of coronavirus tests in its total test count, a data choice that experts say gives a flawed sense of how well the state is doing at testing people for the virus.

After a series of blunders, there is increasing scrutiny on how DPH collects and communicates important statistics about the coronavirus pandemic. The agency is facing a crisis of confidence as people are trying to use its data to make decisions about when to go back to work and how to keep their families safe.

“I’m skeptical of them,” said Barbara Russell.

She’s no epidemiologist, but she’s been keeping her own spreadsheets so that she can track Georgia’s numbers to figure out when she’ll feel safe enough to start getting back to her usual life. 

But when she hears about errors — both here and in other states — it makes her question what she’s seeing. 

Like when she sees a drop in confirmed cases, she said on one hand she’s happy, “but I’m thinking, is this really real or not. I’m not really wanting to totally swallow those numbers there. But what else can you rely on?”

A pandemic is not the time public officials want people questioning their data, said Dr. Melanie Thompson, the principal investigator of the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta.

“I think public trust has been damaged,” she said. 

And that’s dangerous because it can lead to skepticism about other messages, such as how people can best stay safe.

“Ignoring those messages could definitely lead not only to their personal illness but to the illness, hospitalization, death of others, so it’s a very serious matter,” she said. 

Thompson said there are reasons outside of the state agency’s control for why it seems to be having a hard time keeping public trust: A chronic lack of funding, a growing distrust in science among parts of the public, and the way this pandemic has been politicized at the highest levels of government.

“When you add the number of errors that we have been seeing from the data on the website to that, it makes the people who are trying not to think conspiratorially wonder whether any of these things are actually being done to tell a narrative,” she said. 

At a press conference Thursday, DPH Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said this pandemic has put “unprecedented” demands on her agency. 

She said it’s trying its best to provide accurate information quickly, and she welcomed outside scrutiny.

“I’m actually grateful that the media is looking at this closely,” she said. “Often, you can recognize things that I did not see, or there’s some inconsistencies that I didn’t notice. It’s not that we’re trying to hide things.”

She emphasized that the agency needs the public’s trust, and said that in public health, data have to be updated all the time, which means that numbers can change. 

Gov. Brian Kemp said that people should be confident in the state’s numbers. He also said the demand for all of this up-to-date data is new for public health officials.

“They haven’t been through a pandemic like this, and they certainly haven’t been through something like this where you have the real-time data apparatus that we have today,” he said. “That is not what Dr. Toomey’s team is — that’s not what they’re best at.”

The Department of Public Health may soon have to do more with less, though. Kemp has ordered all state agencies to make double-digit cuts to their budgets because of the economic nosedive caused by the pandemic. 

For now, Barabara Russell said she doesn’t yet feel like she can trust Georgia’s numbers to tell her that she can stop sheltering in place. 

“I still don’t feel comfortable going out,” she said. 

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