Reopening challenges: Test backlog makes data hard to interpret

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While Jefferson and Orleans parishes were initial leaders in the state with the number of diagnosed cases of COVID-19, Steven Procopio, policy director at Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, says cases in those two parishes now comprise less than 40% of new cases. 

Procopio spoke about the challenges facing the state as it looks to reopen during a Baton Rouge Area Chamber webinar this morning. As the state looks to reopen the economy, state officials will use data to determine how the virus is playing out. 

Procopio says it’s difficult to interpret the virus’s spread at this point because reporting backlogs are distorting trends. While there’s been a steady decline in coronavirus-related hospitalization, the number of cases is increasing statewide. 

“But of course it is because there’s this huge backlog,” Procopio says. “You can’t necessarily make any real policy determinations off of that.”

For example, if you look at data for the Capital Region, it looks like what Procopio describes as “a snake eating a basketball” because of backlogged test results that were released late last week. 

The state is on track to meet its testing goal, which is part of the criteria for moving to future phases of reopening. PAR currently projects the state will surpass its 200,000 testing goal for May, far surpassing the 140,000 minimum required. 

Potentially threatening future reopening phases is the projected “second wave” of cases expected as the economy reopens. While there will certainly be an increase, according to Procopio, the question is by how much. He says it’s too soon to predict whether a second wave would overwhelm the health system. 

“Would a slight incline cause us not to go to phase two? Probably,” he says. “Officially, it’s supposed to be decreasing. Unclear would be whether it would knock us to pre-phase one. … I don’t think we’ll fall back, but we don’t have enough data and the data we have has issues.”  

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