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FAMU Epidemiologist On Separating COVID-19 Fact, From Fiction

Johns Hopkins' University's Covid tracking map has become widely circulated. it's important to know what the red circles mean and how to interpret the data accurately.
Johns Hopkins University

The United States is still on the upswing when it comes to the number of COVID-19 infections and the increasing worry has people looking for information on the disease. But not all information being floated is legitimate. Florida A&M University epidemiologist Dr. Perry Brown discusses where people should turn for good information, and how to discern fact from fiction.

Dr. Perry Brown works at FAMU’s Institute of Public Health, and he’s been working on and researching COVID-19 as one of the 100 epidemiologists brought in by the state to aid its response.  One of the first things Brown talks about, is how to use the Florida Department of Health’s data—the numbers of tests, infections, deaths—and what it all means.

“Look at the number as an estimate—what we call a point estimate. ANd that point estimate can be the estimate plus another couple cases, or that estimate minutes another couple cases in case there’s a data entry error or a duplicate report," he says.

A better way is to consider the data as if it’s a snapshot in time, because it’s being updated constantly, and by multiple people in multiple places in the state.

Another piece of data circulating is the Johns Hopkins COVID map. This map shows all of the continents, and they’re covered in varying sized circles. The circles over the United States cover most of the country—and it can look alarming, if you don’t know what you’re looking at:

“This representation—if a person just looks at it, they’d say ‘holy smokes, the United States is really messed up."

Brown says, that’s NOT the right conclusion.

“If one clicks and increases the resolution...the more we drill down what we see is, the dots aren’t really that big, and there are a lot of small dots."

The size of the dots, and circles, represent number of infections in an area.

Recently, a caller to WFSU reported a map that he’d seen promoted on a major cable news network. This was a map of a different sort—called the US Health Weather Map. It’s produced by the thermometer maker Kinsa, and tracks the incidents of fever’s in the United States. Fevers are one of the symptoms of the new Coronavirus.

“A lot of these maps are based on projections and modeling, and modeling is based on assumptions so, there may be a large number of assumptions," says Brow. "The weather map…is, to me, seems like it might be problematic because people may interpret it as, ‘well if my weather pattern fits these dark areas, it looks like I’m in trouble.” 

The map maker itself notes its map has no way of tracking COVID 19. So, where should people turn for the best, most accurate information?

“I would go to www.CDC.gov, or the state health department site, because that’s where the data that’s the most accurate is. If we look at modeling—it’s a prediction of what’s going to occur in the future. And when I look at this map, it doesn’t tell me what’s going on currently.”

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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