CHICAGO — An old saying made popular by Mark Twain comes to mind whenever I watch Gov. J.B. Pritzker talk about new coronavirus testing: “There are three types of lies — lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Illinois’ billionaire governor appears to have a special affinity for the third kind of lie, most of all.
Such as on Monday, when I asked Pritzker why hospital CEOs say he hasn’t provided them a comprehensive strategy for increasing coronavirus testing.
As part of his non-answer, the governor offered up a random stat: Illinois has done the “second most testing among the top 10 most-populous states in the United States,” alleged proof that Illinois is well on its way to becoming the “biggest and the best testing state in the nation.”
It didn’t answer the question, but Pritzker seemed proud of that, not unlike President Donald Trump taking credit for America’s global lead in total COVID-19 tests totals.
“We have been, in fact, in a very widespread and effective, I think, strategy on ramping up testing and focusing on those communities that need it most,” Pritzker said on the same day Illinois conducted the fewest tests since April 24 — 12,441, to be exact.
All I know is that the next day — it seemed like magic — Pritzker’s administration made headlines claiming to have achieved a single-day COVID-19 testing record of 29,226.
It was so impressive that I couldn’t help but nose around the numbers a bit more than usual.
I spent time looking at testing data the Illinois Department of Public Health presents to the public online, compared it with information on Chicago’s coronavirus data portal, and tooled around data on the COVID Tracking Project.
Some things didn’t seem to add up. For instance, the state reported tens of thousands more tests in Chicago than the city’s public health department lists online.
Turns out, city and state coronavirus data is apples and oranges.
Chicago reports the number of individuals tested for coronavirus, a method that helps measure the number of opportunities to identify a new case. The number of individuals tested compared to the number of positive cases is considered a more-effective look at where the virus is spreading, experts say.
The numbers Pritzker’s administration reports every day are the total number of testing encounters, which include the same person being tested multiple times. It’s a data set that aims to measure the state’s present testing capacity.
Here’s how it was explained to me: One person who gets tested three times is counted once by the city’s data and three times by state’s testing count. The number of confirmed cases is supposed to be “de-duplicated” so the total number of positive cases isn’t inflated.
On May 12, for example, according to Chicago’s data, about 31 percent of about 102,000 individuals tested positive for COVID-19. The state’s data for the same day shows about 23 percent of more than 140,000 testing encounters in Chicago were positive.
What does that mean? Statistics, unlike facts, are easily pliable.
At a time like this, when Pritzker says he has relied on “science and data” to guide his decisions, the ways that statistics are presented really matter. Locating the virus’s hot spots, controlling its spread, and determining when it’s safe to ease stay-at-home restrictions are directly tied to those statistics.
Other states, including Virginia, provide the public online explanations of what’s included in their coronavirus testing data. Illinois public health officials don’t bother with such transparency. All we get is an asterisk marking a footnote that says you’re looking at data that is electronically reported by IDPH, commercial or hospital laboratories. And “all numbers displayed are provisional and will change.”
And Pritzker talks about the COVID-19 testing data as if it’s a pinball score — the bigger number, the better — even as African American and Latino state senators, representatives and Chicago aldermen chastise him for not focusing testing on minority hot spots where people are dying at rate a disproportionate to the population.
Illinois public health officials drag their feet when asked straightforward questions about the source of data, much of that the state keeps under lock and key. And nobody gets to double-check the state’s math. Even county and city health department leaders — some of whom have pandemic experience — aren’t given access to the Illinois’ National Electronic Disease Surveillance System.
I tried to think of any logical reason there could be for limiting data access to county and municipal epidemiologists during the coronavirus crisis.
The only thing that makes sense is something Winston Churchill once said: “The only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself.”
By late Wednesday, Pritzker’s administration hadn’t responded to questions about the science behind the data that guides the governor.
IDPH officials emailed to ask for patience while they “get clarification on” my questions about the source of the state’s testing data: If the spike in reported cases has anything to do with a requirement for commercial labs to report “aggregate” testing data. If antibody tests (which don’t detect an active virus) are included in testing totals. And how the state’s statistics get scrubbed before being presented to the public.
The public deserves those details, which might add insight consistently lacking from the governor’s coronavirus testing strategy that folks are relying on to slow the spread of COVID-19 and eventually reopen the economy.
Pritzker continues lean on statistics that are difficult to understand, let alone trust, while dodging critical questions he doesn’t want to answer. Sometimes, when stats won’t do, the governor offers up anecdotes that he trusts won’t get fact-checked by a press corps limited to one question a day.
Much like on Monday, when Pritzker said coronavirus testing by Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital was proof that his administration’s testing prowess.
He must have forgotten that April 10, Pritzker promised black neighbors on Chicago’s Southwest Side that the hospital his sister’s foundation gave $15 million in January would process 400 tests a day.
As of May 1, the hospital’s daily testing average was about 100, a spokeswoman said.
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That’s not just a statistic. It’s a fact. There’s a difference.
Somebody, tell J.B.
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting and Emmy-nominated producer, was a producer, writer and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docu-series on CNN. He was a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, “16 Shots.”
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