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State & Regional Govt & Politics
Latest data lapse inflated Georgia’s virus test count by 57,000
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Latest data lapse inflated Georgia’s virus test count by 57,000

Photo Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Members of the Georgia National Guard direct vehicles inside a free COVID-19 testing site at the Decatur Armory in Decatur May 12. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Latest data lapse inflated Georgia’s virus test count by 57,000

After facing weeks of criticism for not being transparent with data about the coronavirus, state officials on Wednesday acknowledged that a test type that does not measure active cases inflated published test counts by 57,000, or roughly 14% of total tests to date.

For weeks now, the Department of Public Health has included antibody tests, which can detect if someone once had the coronavirus, with diagnostic tests that measure active infection in its total tally of about 403,000 tests.

Experts say it is misleading to count the tests together because it distorts a state’s capacity to track current infections.

» NEW DASHBOARD: The AJC’s redesigned page of real-time charts tracking the virus

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

The department’s inclusion of antibody tests in testing counts, first reported by the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, surprised DPH Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey and prompted the governor’s office to request that the department remove antibody tests from the state’s totals. Toomey told the AJC she was unaware so many antibody tests were being included.

“It’s not really an error. It’s a way it was collected,” she said. “I didn’t fully appreciate how many antibody tests have been done.”

The testing admission is the latest in a series of missteps in how DPH has presented coronavirus data to the public, and it led to another round of harsh criticism for an agency that has been held up to national ridicule for its handling of public health information.

“Either they don’t know what they’re doing, or (the data is) being manipulated in ways it shouldn’t,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. “Either way it is very concerning.”

» RELATED: Georgia playing catch up in coronavirus testing

» FROM APRIL: New changes to state’s virus data confuse experts, residents alike

In April, Gov. Brian Kemp called the state’s poor national ranking in its share of residents tested for the virus “unacceptable,” and challenged public health officials and private companies ramp up the state’s testing capacity. Earlier this week, he publicly touted the state’s rise to 20th in the nation as an important step forward.

Removing antibody tests from the state’s testing total, however, now drops Georgia’s per capita ranking to 29th, according to the AJC’s analysis of national testing data.

Expert warnings

Experts warn states against lumping antibody and diagnostic virus tests together as they track how many tests have been completed. Diagnostic tests for the virus detect whether someone is currently ill. Tracking how many of them have been completed can show whether a state is doing enough to respond to the pandemic.

Tests for the antibody are designed to show whether a person was previously infected and miss people who recently contracted the virus, said Benjamin Lopman, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Emory University.

“It’s not appropriate to combine those numbers here,” said Lopman, an expert on using statistical analysis and other tools to address public health issues.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Anna Chavez, a physician assistant with Piedmont Henry, takes a free COVID-19 test from a motorist at a pop-up site at the House of Hope on May 4, in Decatur. Pastors, local physicians, health ministers, and other community leaders united to encourage area residents to get tested. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
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Latest data lapse inflated Georgia’s virus test count by 57,000

Photo Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Anna Chavez, a physician assistant with Piedmont Henry, takes a free COVID-19 test from a motorist at a pop-up site at the House of Hope on May 4, in Decatur. Pastors, local physicians, health ministers, and other community leaders united to encourage area residents to get tested. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Last week, The COVID Tracking Project, a top source for national data, called combining antibody and viral testing figures a “deceptive misuse of the data.” A controversy in Virginia led that state to announce last Thursday that it would remove the antibody figures from its overall testing number.

DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said in an email that staffers are working on ways to disclose that both tests are included on its online COVID-19 Daily Status Report, and said that the agency had included the antibody tests in its counts in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Toomey told the AJC she recognized her department’s handling of virus data has been a problem.

“Data are only good if you can look at them and understand what they mean,” she said. “As an epidemiologist this is something very important to me. We want to make sure we do everything we can to get these data in the most accurate but also easy to understand format.”

Earlier mistakes

This most recent data problem prompted demands for a transparent accounting of how and why the state has made so many unforced errors with COVID-19 data in recent weeks.

Some such as a death toll miscount could have been the result of typos. Others have repeatedly mislead Georgians to think new confirmed cases of the virus were dropping dramatically when they had plateaued.

While DPH has not been including positive antibody tests results in the total of confirmed cases, earlier this week the agency removed 231 positive cases from the state’s tally of new confirmed cases, saying in a statement that it mistakenly included antibody test results in the count. Antibody tests only became available to the public in recent weeks and were not included in DPH’s original test tracking totals.

“Either they don’t know what they’re doing, or (the data is) being manipulated in ways it shouldn’t. Either way it is very concerning.” —Dr. Harry J. Heiman, clinical associate professor at the GSU School of Public Health

The problems have led some to wonder whether bad information is being used to inform public policy.

Public health experts track closely a measure called positivity, which is the share of all tests for the virus that have come back positive. A high positivity rate may mean that a state is only testing the sickest people and does not have a good sense of the disease’s prevalence. A low one can mean a state knows enough to make informed decisions about reopening businesses, schools and swimming pools.

Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center listed Georgia as among its top 20 states for positivity at 3.52%, but the inclusion of the antibody tests throw the state’s apparent successes into question.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dozens of specimen collection volunteers are on hand to take free COVID-19 tests at a pop-up site at the House of Hope on May 4, in Decatur. Pastors, local physicians, health ministers, and other community leaders united to encourage area residents to get tested. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Close

Latest data lapse inflated Georgia’s virus test count by 57,000

Photo Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dozens of specimen collection volunteers are on hand to take free COVID-19 tests at a pop-up site at the House of Hope on May 4, in Decatur. Pastors, local physicians, health ministers, and other community leaders united to encourage area residents to get tested. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Transparency

Recent mistakes have portrayed the state’s COVID response in a more positive light than it had earned, said State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta.

“Maybe one mistake is an accident. A second — that’s a little funny,” Jordan said. “But after you get to the third or fourth time, with the mistakes representing a specific conclusion, you have to start to wonder what is happening in terms of management of data.

T.J. Muehleman, who helped start the COVID Mapping Project, an online tool to help bring clarity to confusing health data reported across the U.S., has been among those perplexed by Georgia’s data stumbles.

“The state that’s home to the CDC, Georgia Tech, Emory University and the Morehouse School of Medicine — how do you have such a terrible data communication platform?” Muehleman said.

» RELATED: State’s latest data mishap causes critics to cry foul

» MORE: Error leads to dip in state’s COVID-19 case count

But Muehleman said the state’s testing capacity appears to be moving in the right direction and he said he doesn’t believe the errors are deliberate.

“I suspect this is them moving at a very, very rapid clip to be responsive,” Muehleman said. “It is disappointing. All the data problems they have had have been avoidable and certainly all the data problems they have would be solved with transparency.”

J.C. Bradbury, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University who tracks the Department of Public Health data and publishes his own graphs on Twitter, said this latest data reporting controversy shows that the state needs oversight. He said DPH should invite the media to watch its number crunching operation much as elections offices do on election nights.

“It would go a long way to establish credibility,” he said.

Dr. Melanie Thompson, principal investigator of the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta and a practicing physician, said she grew suspicious of DPH’s testing figure after it pulled back the 231 positive tests earlier this week.

“The question I have is who made this decision?” she said. “Who made the decision to do this? I wish the Department of Public Health would let the (epidemiology) group talk.”

Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.

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A witness who lives at the condo complex told WPLG he saw Alejandro in the canal behind his home but didn’t think much of it. “Kids fall in the canal all the time,” said the witness, who declined to speak on camera. “Usually, you grab them, yank them out and away you go.” Alejandro appeared to be seated in water that was chest deep, the man said. “The only odd thing was she kind of started screaming and called his name, and then turned around and ran off screaming,” the man told the news station. 'He was just sitting there, and I tried to speak to him a couple of times and he looked at me, and that’s when she returned with an older couple. ”At the time, I thought they were together because that woman was giving it to her, screaming, ‘What are you doing? Why’d you leave the kid there?‘” The witness described the bystanders pulling Alejandro from the water. 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Aldo Ripley sobbed Friday as he spoke to reporters following his wife’s bond hearing. “We love Alejandro, and we don’t agree with whatever they said about my wife,” a masked Aldo Ripley said through tears. “It’s not real.” Watch Aldo Ripley speak below and hear from Patricia Ripley’s attorney, courtesy of the Herald. It was not immediately clear if the boy’s father has seen the evidence against his wife. Patricia Ripley’s attorney, Nelson Rodriguez-Varela, told reporters outside the courtroom that he would not discuss any evidence in the case but would “leave that for another day.” “There is obviously a great deal of support for her,” Rodriguez-Varela said. “Everybody’s very concerned about her situation. “By all accounts, she has been an excellent mother, an excellent person, a great family as you can see from the people who are here.” The defense attorney said he is amassing a legal team to ensure his client’s rights are protected and she has the “opportunity to vindicate her good name.” Alejandro’s killing has provoked outrage in Florida and across the country, not only because of the circumstances of his death but also because of the nature of Ripley’s initial story to police. She claimed two black men had run her off the road and abducted her son at knifepoint, authorities said. “The only voice in his life that he depended on to get through this world was his mom’s,” Miami-Dade police Director Alfredo Ramirez said Friday during a news conference. “To think that voice would be the one that would harm him the most. “As a parent and as a member of this community, I’m deeply saddened for what happened to that young boy. And then for her to displace blame of her crime on another community, it’s just … well, another crime that was committed. It is very disappointing.” According to an affidavit in the case, Ripley called 911 shortly before 9 p.m. Thursday and reported that she and Alejandro had been traveling near a Home Depot in West Kendall when her vehicle was sideswiped, causing her to crash. She claimed the driver of the other car got out and approached her vehicle with a knife, demanding drugs before opening the front driver’s side door and stealing her cellphone and tablet. “She stated this male then removed her 9-year-old autistic child and fled in an unknown direction,” the affidavit says. Ripley was taken to the police station for questioning, according to the document. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials issued an Amber Alert for Alejandro. The alert described Ripley’s alleged assailants as “two unknown black males driving an unknown light blue four-door sedan.” “One of the abductors may be wearing all black clothing and a black bandanna as a face mask,” the alert said. “He may also have cornrows in his hair.” At the police station, Ripley gave “conflicting statements” to missing persons detectives, the affidavit states. The case was transferred to homicide detectives when Alejandro’s body was found, about 11 hours after he was first reported missing and 4 miles from the scene of the alleged abduction. Ripley was taken from the missing persons bureau to the homicide division for additional questioning. Again, she gave conflicting statements, the affidavit says. “These statements contradicted the statements of witnesses and the video footage obtained from the area of SW 103rd Avenue and Kendall Drive,” the document states. The footage described in the affidavit matches the surveillance video obtained by Univision. The Herald reported that security camera footage from outside the Home Depot near where Ripley claimed Alejandro had been kidnapped showed Ripley sitting alone in her car for 20 minutes before she called 911 to report him missing. Witnesses also told police they’d seen Ripley with her son near the canal where he was eventually found dead, CBS Miami reported. When confronted with the evidence, Ripley admitted she had not been robbed, the affidavit says. “She admitted that she drove to SW 62(nd) Street and SW 138(th) Court at approximately 8:30 p.m. and parked near a canal,” the document states. “She then led the victim to the canal, where he drowned. “She stated he’s going to be in a better place.” The CBS affiliate reported that a law enforcement official said Ripley told detectives she’d been thinking about killing her son for a while because the older he got, the more difficult he was to physically control. According to the Amber Alert, Alejandro weighed 120 pounds and was 4 feet, 11 inches tall. Miami-Dade County Jail records show that Ripley weighs 138 pounds. She is 5 feet, 5 inches tall. Since Alejandro’s death, at least one Miami-area support group for special needs children and their families has seen an uptick in calls from parents whose children are in crisis. Rabbi Yossi Harlig, co-director of Friendship Circle Miami, told the Herald the boy’s killing has rippled through the community as the nation deals with the deadly COVID-19 outbreak, which had killed more than 98,000 Americans as of Tuesday morning. The social distancing required to help stem the spread of the virus has placed already-struggling families in even more tense situations as they shelter in place and parents homeschool their children. “One of the concerns is that when someone acts like that, it could trigger other people. You never know,” Harlig told the Herald. “Typical families are feeling overwhelmed. Imagine if you’re raising a child with special needs.” In a Facebook video posted on the Friendship Circle’s profile, Harlig described the love and caretaking provided by the parents of most special needs children as “something that is like the work of angels.” With that love, however, comes pain, worry and an often overwhelming challenge. He begged those feeling that challenge to reach out for help. Friendship Circle Miami, which held a memorial service for Alejandro on Friday and has an online town hall meeting planned for Wednesday night, is implementing a hotline service for overwhelmed parents, the rabbi told the Herald. The group is also hoping to establish group therapy or child care centers to help families cope. “One thing that people always tell us is that they feel very isolated and alone, and there’s nowhere to turn to,” Harlig said. “One of the big things that people need is a respite, to have a place where they can drop off their child for a few hours and they can take a break.” The Lifeline Project will be launched in the days and weeks ahead, Harlig said on the organization’s Facebook page. “If anyone who cares for a person with special needs feels they are in crisis, they can reach us at 305-234-5654 or rebyossi@friendshipcirclemiami.org,” the page states. In Friday’s news conference outside Fernandez Rundle’s office, the prosecutor said nothing is worse than the death of a child. “The death of a child is tragic; the killing of a child is horrific,” the prosecutor said. Fernandez Rundle praised the work of Miami-Dade County detectives, who she said combed the community for evidence and witnesses and quickly established the truth of the case. “The tragic loss of the life of a 9-year-old boy, and the loss, really, of any young life, leaves all of us grieving,” Fernandez Rundle said. “This boy’s senseless, senseless death will stay with all of us, just as his bright smile that shines out from the photographs we’ve all seen.” Harlig said in a statement that his organization’s leaders are shocked and saddened by Alejandro’s death. “No child should ever be in this position, especially a child with special needs who cannot call out for help,” the rabbi said. “We all grieve for Alejandro and his family.”