Slow, limited testing makes Lafayette’s coronavirus data murky

The gist: The COVID-19 pandemic spits out dizzying amounts of data, and it’s hard to get a grip on exactly what it points to. Confirmed cases, we’re told, remain an unreliable datapoint while public health experts try to forecast a peak. We’re looking too far in the past to know what it’s coming. 

What do the numbers really mean? At best, confirmed cases are a lagging indicator. And so long as labs remain backed up, the lag will be even longer. That has state and regional health officials making educated guesses about what’s coming. Hundreds of tests remain outstanding, according to regional public health officials, and testing standards remain tight. 

On Monday, LCG reported an 800% increase in confirmed cases from a week ago. Last Monday, Lafayette Parish had 9 confirmed cases. As of noon today, there were 82 — spike of 32 over Sunday. But that jump isn’t necessarily meaningful. It underscores the continued advance of the virus, but limited as we are to testing only the very sick, it doesn’t really say that much about how far it already reaches, officials say.

Health officials track pending cases in hospitals. Dr. Tina Stefanski, the Acadiana region’s top public health official, noted Monday that well over 100 patients are being treated in the region’s hospitals as though they’re COVID-positive but without confirmation. Periodic dips in day-to-day confirmations — for instance, the relatively scant number of cases officially declared over the weekend — won’t tell us much without a sustained trend. 

Researchers are looking for a dip in the percent of positive cases versus the number tested. Stefanksi said once they see a larger share of samples come back negative, they’ll have some indication of a plateau. 

So we can’t really say for sure when a peak will come. That’s why messaging remains stern. Officials are peering into an incomplete past, so they can’t let people off the hook on social distancing. There are rapid tests on the way, and more testing supplies in general, but most new supply will likely be earmarked for hard hit epicenters like New York and New Orleans. Test results could continue to lag. 

“We’re seeing that literally anyone can be infected by this virus and be killed,” Mayor-President Josh Guillory said today. The stark warning is as much about what we do know as what we don’t. Social distancing will remain the norm for some time.