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  • Writer's pictureAletheia

PHMDC Shuffles Data Views...Again

If the folks at Public Health of Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) made a New Year's Resolution for 2022, honesty in data presentation certainly wasn't it.

On Dec 8, Dane Undivided called out PHMDC's Data Team for defaulting several key bar graphs to a 14-day default view for close to a year, thereby obscuring nearly two years of crucial data in relationship to the following data graphs:

  1. Daily cases (screen 2)

  2. Daily tests (screen 3)

  3. Daily case percentages (screen 4)

  4. Daily total inpatients (screen 7)

  5. Daily ICU patients (screen 7)

Less than a week after we called out this bad practice, PHMDC suddenly changed course. On or around Dec 13th, the agency shifted all but its case percentage graph on screen 4 to an "all-time" view, finally allowing viewers to see an abundance of fear-quelling data at first glance. This change was very good news.

PHMDC's transparency lasted just three short weeks. As of January 3, 2022, the agency has changed default settings again. And they're no longer even attempting to be consistent. While they've maintained the all-time view for cases, they've switched back to the 14-day view for tests, inpatients, and ICU occupancy, but curiously changed the case percentages graph to an all-time view (remember Case Percentages was the only graph they didn't change to an all-time view on Dec 13th).

The need to keep COVID fear high likely plays into the default views PHMDC recently set, particularly with County Supervisor Jeff Weigand's RES-157 now on the Dane County Board's January 6th agenda for a vote. But looking closely at the views they'd prefer to obscure helps us see that RES-157 probably isn't the only thing they're worried about.

So, let's take a peek, huh...? What are they up to? Let's take it graph by graph.

Daily Cases (Screen 2)

The screenshot below of the Daily Cases graph was taken on Jan 3rd, 2022 (as were all other screenshots in this post):

WOOOOO HOOOOO! Look at that scary spike on the right! PHMDC definitely wants you to see that thing! Incidentally, while it's hard to tell from the image, the spike tops out at 1,890 cases on New Year's Eve. Convenient, isn't it--when you need to generate fear and justify continued emergency orders--to have a spike that enormous right on the brink of 2022...? What a stroke of luck for PHMDC!

Daily Tests (Screen 3)

See...? Back to the 14-day default view after just three short weeks.

I've annotated this screenshot with the testing numbers PHMDC reported on Jan 3rd, but it's important to note that testing numbers can change significantly, sometimes weeks or months after the fact (more on that weird reality soon).

I'll explore in greater depth the reason for the default change to the testing graph in an upcoming post. Suffice it to say, there are definitely reasons PHMDC doesn't want you looking at the full historical view of the daily tests graph. You can probably begin to deduce some of them as we explore our next screen shot.

Daily Case Percentages (Screen 4)

Well, now it really gets interesting. The one graph they'd never before defaulted to an all-time view has suddenly shifted to an all-time view. A quick glance will tell you that they desperately want you to see that big ol' scary percentage spike on the right, literally dwarfing anything else in the prior 21 months. It's a great, if thoroughly dishonest, way to underscore the similar spike on the daily cases graph.

In point of fact, the only reason to pay any attention to this graph is to understand just how irresponsible and manipulative PHMDC's data presentation is. The graph merely records daily percentages yielded by dividing daily cases by daily tests--in other words, the number of people who took a COVID test and received a positive result.

But here's the dirty little secret...

I can divide just 1 case by 4 tests to provide a 25% case percentage, like the one they want you to freak out about here. Or I can divide 25 cases by 100 tests to get the same percentage. Or I can divide 250 cases by 1000 tests. See how that works? Nifty trick, huh...?

And the hemicycle at the top, showing a "terrifying" 16%? That's simply an average of the most recent 7 days of case percentages (or the most recent 14 days, if one selects the "Past 2 weeks" radio button). You can't know the underlying data that produced any of these percentages from looking at this screen.

To get the actual case and test numbers that produced the daily (or weekly) percentages this graph records, you have to go back to other screens to gather that data. Most people won't. The only value this screen has, then, is to: 1) scare you visually where possible, and/or 2) to conceal other truths inconvenient for PHMDC.

Daily Total Inpatients and Daily ICU Occupancy (Screen 7)

Yup, both are back to that contextless 14-day view. I've again annotated the screenshot with PHMDC's recorded numbers for Jan 3, 2022.

We can see a slight uptick in daily inpatient numbers in the past week or better. But doesn't it seem rather odd that they aren't showing you corresponding giant spikes in hospital and/or ICU admissions...? Gee, it's looking...well...pretty stable! Especially when you consider that these numbers are spread across multiple hospitals. Believe me, if PHMDC had a big scary hospitalization spike to show you, they would.

Looks like most people have been riding COVID out at home with no problem. And that is not a convenient truth for PHMDC.

While I have discussed this reality elsewhere, I took the time to update some comparison data on the average number of inpatients for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 respiratory illness seasons respectively. I expanded the data range into early Jan for both seasons, which increased Dane County's average daily number of total inpatients to 87 over my original finding of 82. However, as found in my previous post, the average remains precisely the same for both years. To date, there has been zero YOY increase.

I made the same updates to ICU numbers. Dane County's average daily ICU occupancy did increase during the 2021-22 season. However, figuring in the additional three weeks of data actually lowers the the 27% percent YOY increase calculated in my original post (28 ICU patients on average in 2021-22 versus 22 in 2020-21). It's now just a 20.83% increase (29 ICU patients on average in 2021-22 versus 24 in 2020-21). Oh dear...the gap appears to be closing. And that's really only an average of five more daily ICU occupants, spread across multiple hospitals. Again, not convenient for PHMDC's narrative.

Summing Up...

In an upcoming post, I'll connect some additional interesting dots regarding the current default settings. For now, I'll just re-iterate that PHMDC's COVID-19 dashboard seems to function an awful lot like a huckster shell game.

A few words to the wise, then:

  1. Remember that knowledge is power.

  2. Don't allow PHMDC to direct your gaze.

  3. Look at everything--especially the stuff that PHMDC tries to hide and shuffle.

  4. Scrutinize everything.

  5. Ask loads of questions.

More soon...

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