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Before the coronavirus shut down sports, I spent a lot of time most days looking at numbers.
And now, I spend a lot of time most days looking at numbers.
Instead of points per possession, or shot attempts, or expected goals, it’s COVID-19 cases, and percentage daily increases, and testing rates.
There are lessons from the analysis of sports statistics that can be applied to the much more important data that is now impacting how we live our everyday lives, bunkered away and either lonely or constantly bumping into family members.
But the biggest lesson, so far, is this: this data stinks. If a professional sports league was providing the kind of scattered, incomplete information that our governments are releasing on the coronavirus pandemic, we would ridicule them. And we have. (Hello, National Hockey League).
But when this data is meant to inform the public about the spread of an illness, and whether the measures we are taking have been effective, there is something more than ridicule that should be offered. We should be mad. We deserve better from our governments.
The single coronavirus statistic that is most cited these days is the number of cases in a particular place. Everywhere you turn, there are references to the steady global rise, or the sharp jumps in places like New York and Spain, and before that, China and Italy. In Canada there has also been a steep upward trajectory, which is distressing given all the talk about flattening the curve and the social-distancing measures that a significant number of citizens have undertaken.
Are Ontarians doing a bang-up job of containing this thing, or do we simply not have the proper data?
But that statistic, on its own, doesn’t say much. Rates of coronavirus testing vary wildly from province to province, which naturally affects the number of positive cases discovered. As of Wednesday morning, Ontario appeared to be having moderate success at restraining the spread of the virus, with just under 2,000 cases, for a rate of about 13 per 100,000 residents. That rate is lower than the rate in six other provinces. But again, as of Wednesday morning, Ontario had also run far fewer tests on a per-capita basis. Quebec had completed 16,000 more tests, even though Ontario has six million more residents. Alberta had completed 94 per cent as many tests as Ontario, despite having less than a third of its population.
So, are Ontarians doing a bang-up job of containing this thing, or do we simply not have the proper data? It’s like comparing the goals scored by two hockey teams, when one has played far more games. Further clouding the picture is that Quebec, with double the confirmed cases of Ontario, includes “presumed” cases as positive results. Thus, there’s no standard agreement on what constitutes a goal.
On cue, Ontario’s updated Wednesday numbers revealed a jump of more than 400 cases, the largest daily increase so far, but on a day when more than double the amount of tests were resolved than a day earlier. More tests, more positives. More games, more goals.
And while the numbers of confirmed cases are what lead all of the daily media briefings, experts have said for some time that it is hospitalized cases that are most concerning.
It’s those numbers that demonstrate whether the health-care system is on pace to be overwhelmed, as has happened in places like Italy, which causes a commensurate jump in the death rate. In the sports context, hospitalization or intensive-care rates would be the advanced stats, the underlying numbers that give a more accurate picture of performance than the tops-of-the-waves stuff. But the information our governments provide on these details is scattershot and incomplete at best. It has to be chased down separately, although some provinces appear to be finally moving in the direction of providing it as part of their daily releases.
It is worth noting here that health care is a provincial responsibility, and so there are obstacles in the way to providing uniform, Canada-wide information. But isn’t a global pandemic the time for Ottawa to shake itself out of its normal way of doing business? The time for it to ensure that the coronavirus information released to the public is comprehensive and accurate? We shouldn’t have to be trying to infer what the numbers from Quebec and Ontario and Alberta mean. We should know, because someone in a position to know is telling us.
The information our governments provide on these details is scattershot and incomplete at best
It’s not even clear that federal officials should be trying to describe coronavirus spread in national terms. In recent days, the Canada-wide picture has been one of consistent daily jumps, but these are driven by big increases in Quebec and Ontario. The situation in British Columbia and the Prairies appears — for now, at least — to be one of significant progress in terms of limiting the spread of the disease, and a sign that the social-distancing measures are having the desired impact. You’d think that’s a message that Ottawa’s political and medical leaders would want to drive home, instead of simply reporting the steady national increases.
Of course, much about this pandemic has been changing rapidly, and I understand that people in high places have been forced to figure this stuff out on the move. But we are being told that our new reality of isolation and lockdown could carry on for weeks and months.
If our governments want the public to understand why all this is happening, it needs to provide the public with better information. And it needs to do that now.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020