HealthcareIssuesStatewide NewsFive Trends in Coronavirus Data Indicate Texas is in Strong Shape

The Texan has closely monitored the coronavirus data released from the state. Here is an analysis of some of the key findings.
May 7, 2020
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For over the past month, The Texan has been keeping close track of the COVID-19 data released by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS).

DSHS initially began sharing the number of total tests — both those conducted by public and private labs — and the number of total positive cases.

Later, they began reporting the number of fatalities, hospitalizations, and recoveries.

While the data is not ideal due to low testing at the beginning of the outbreak and other factors which might cause inaccuracies, the data from DSHS is one of the primary sources used by state officials in making policy decisions.

With that in mind, what follows are five key takeaways in an analysis of the data.

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  1. Testing for the virus has increased substantially in the past month.

Pundits who are critical of state leaders are quick to point out that Texas is lagging behind the states in per capita testing — 41 other states are ahead of Texas, according to the most recent data from Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center.

However, Texas also lags behind 40 states in both the number of cases and the number of deaths.

Due to the laws of supply and demand, which continue even during a worldwide lockdown, many testing resources in the nation have been prioritized for states that have faced significant breakouts of the virus.

Governor Greg Abbott stated at a press conference on Tuesday that while “we’re not quite there yet…the number of testing continues to ramp up.”

Although regulations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reportedly led to the delay of testing throughout February and early March, private labs have led the way in testing Texans for the virus.

As of Wednesday, May 6, private labs in the state have conducted 424,580 tests, while public labs have only conducted 14,358.

Looking at the seven-day moving averages, the daily average number of tests has increased from about 3,700 at the end of March to a current daily average of about 17,700.

*Note that this chart and others in this article use both the left and right axes, as indicated.
  1. The positive rate in cases has been steadily declining since around Easter.

A dramatic increase in testing has naturally led to a dramatic increase in the number of total cases — going from about 3,000 cases at the end of March to now over 34,000.

But as the number of tests has increased, the positive rate of tests has steadily declined from the last peak seven-day moving average of 16.43 percent on April 13.

The average positive rate may have been even higher in March, as seen in the chart above, but some days where more new cases than new tests were reported could have skewed the averages.

April 7 saw the peak rate with about 30 percent of the 3,300 tests reported on the day coming back positive.

Easter Sunday, April 12, saw the next single-day high, with 23 percent positive tests.

Throughout the past several weeks, testing has been widened beyond those who have come in contact with other coronavirus patients or those who are displaying severe symptoms.

Such widening could contribute to the decreasing positive rate, but could also mean that more patients who are testing positive have minor or asymptomatic cases and will unlikely need to be hospitalized.

  1. Hospitalizations have increased slightly, but the hospitalization rate has declined slightly.

One of the most important statistics for government officials to watch in making policy decisions is the hospitalization rate of COVID-19 cases, since the stated goal in shutting down the economy was to “flatten the curve” so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed with more cases than they can handle.

Data from the state indicates that while the seven-day moving average of hospitalizations on a day-to-day basis has increased slightly since Easter, the hospitalization rate — that is, the number of patients hospitalized out of the total number of active cases — has generally decreased.

As the number of total cases continues to increase, more people are being admitted to hospitals, but they make up a smaller share of the active cases.

It is unclear what role, if any, the loosened restrictions on hospitals might have on the total number of hospitalizations.

While doctors had previously encouraged anyone with mild symptoms to self-isolate, the looser restrictions could potentially lead to a greater willingness of hospitals to admit patients who are experiencing less severe cases of the virus.

After all, if residents of a nursing home are infected with a virus, it may be viewed to be safer for the community to move them to a hospital for the duration of the infection, even if they are not in severe or critical condition.

At the press conference on Tuesday, Texas Health and Human Services (HHS) Acting Executive Commissioner Phil Wilson said that approximately 13,250 positive cases were in nursing homes — just over a third of all cases in the state.

Abbott also noted that 75 percent of cases are with patients over 65 years old.

Patients who are admitted to a hospital for an unrelated issue and who then test positive for the virus could also be required to isolate at the hospital even if the virus is not the cause of their stay.

Asked if this could be a factor, a representative from DSHS told The Texan that since they do not receive details about the cases, they do not have “enough information about the hospitalizations to determine causality for the increase in hospitalizations.”

DSHS also does not track the severity of cases directly, but does keep track of the intensive care unit (ICU) beds available.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Abbott said that the total number of beds available for patients will begin shrinking as hospitals resume non-coronavirus related treatments.

On March 23, there were about 8,000 total beds available. After Abbott’s policies to conserve and increase the number of available beds in case of a surge, the total soared to around 20,000.

Despite early projections that U.S. hospitals would be overflowing with patients by tomorrow, May 8 — which assumed that the virus would exponentially spread indefinitely, contrary to the more accurate analysis of Nobel laureate and biophysicist Michael Levitt — the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations on a given day in Texas has not surpassed 2,000.

Given that the virus has already spread through a fair percentage of the population, it remains unlikely that the state as a whole will see a surge in hospital capacities beyond their limit.

Individual regions where a “flare-up” occurs are more likely to be pushed to their limits, but state health officials are well-equipped to provide urgent relief in such cases.

At the most recent press conference, DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt acknowledged the possibility of a resurgence in cases since “we have been so successful at keeping COVID-19 at bay.”

But he added, “We have seen the way the people of Texas have responded to this first challenge, and it worked. And we’re confident that if we lay out for them very effective means to keep COVID-19 under control […] we have great confidence that they will be successful in this next phase.”

  1. The fatality rate has fluctuated consistently with the positive test rates.

It should be noted that the true fatality rate will be difficult to determine, if not impossible, since the total number of cases is unknown — especially when testing was practically non-existent in the early stages of the virus’s spread.

Based on the available data, the total fatality rate (i.e. the total number of reported deaths out of the total number of reported cases) has increased over time — going from 1.45 percent at the beginning of April to currently 2.75 percent.

However, perhaps a more pertinent statistic to look at is the seven-day moving average daily death rate — that is, the weekly moving average of the number of new deaths each day out of the number of active cases.

Looking at this information reveals a fluctuation that appears to align with the positive rates of testing if taking into account the median time of first symptoms to death.

The number of daily new deaths peaked on April 30 with 50 new deaths, with the average daily death rate spiking to 0.23 percent. 

Timing of the record was used to criticize Abbott’s reopening plan, which was slated to allow the reopening of some businesses at a limited capacity the following day.

But such criticisms failed to consider why the number of new deaths each day was fluctuating.

As noted earlier, the positive rate reached a high around Easter, April 12. Considering that testing was still being limited and hospitalization rates were also higher than now, the data suggests this was around the time that Texas peaked in severe cases.

A report published by the CDC indicates that the median time from the first COVID-19 symptoms to the point of death is 18 days.

Thus, the rise in deaths around April 30 correlates to the rise in cases around April 12, further indicating that the peak spread was around Easter.

The other peaks and troughs in the weekly average death rate could have been affected by the natural spread of the virus, treatments used by medical professionals, and the dates of the lockdown and social distancing policies set in place by state and local governments.

  1. Recoveries have surpassed active cases.

On a positive note, the total number of coronavirus cases has surpassed the number of active cases.

While this total continues to rise — with many likely being milder than before due to the increased availability of tests — the number of recoveries began outpacing the number of active cases on May 2 and has continued to widen since.

As of May 6, there have been 17,622 recoveries and 15,852 active cases.

Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.

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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. While recently finishing his degree in Political Science from Azusa Pacific University, he also interned in the U.S. Senate and co-authored a book on C. S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. In his spare time, he might be reading up on Dostoevsky or attempting to write a novel.