West Virginia’s Malleable Covid-19 Map

The Justice administration’s color-coded Covid-19 map shows the extent of the virus in each county.  It provides a metric for determining whether public schools can open and whether sports and other extracurricular activities can take place.

The mapping and the data that go into the metric have generated confusion and controversy for a variety of reasons.

The map has undergone multiple changes since its introduction before the start of school. A fifth category was added to the color code (gold) and counties were given the option of using the percent positive metric as well as the rolling average of positive cases per 100,000 population to determine their category.

The percent positive measurement produced a dramatic change in how counties were categorized. When the dominant Saturday map came out last weekend, more counties were depicted as green—the safest category—allowing them to open school and play sports.

That triggered speculation that Justice modified the metric to get the result he wanted.  At his briefing Monday, Justice dismissed the criticism. “There is not one chance on earth—not one slither of chance—that I’m going to put up with us manipulating numbers.”

The problem is not with the mapping so much as the messaging. The frequent changes have occurred while groups are pressuring to have football games or open schools, so it can appear as though the desired result is driving the decisions.

Justice is given to lending his ear to constituent groups, especially when they show up outside the Capitol to make their case. However, that does not mean tweaking the metric is wrong.

Under the previous system, just a few positive cases in a county were enough to shut down schools and extracurriculars.  That discouraged testing and made it harder for local health officials to identify individuals with the virus and conduct contact tracing.

West Virginia Covid-19 Czar Dr. Clay Marsh said adding percent positive “allows us to incentivize communities to test in order to both reduce Covid spread from super-spreaders and to have the county deemed safe for school and activities.”

Additionally, Justice has ordered the amount of testing to roughly double to 7,000 a day.

The importance of increased testing is backed up by other experts published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“When there is not enough testing in an area, people who are infected with coronavirus don’t get counted, and they don’t know to isolate themselves. As a result, these people can spread the coronavirus and cause disease in their communities,” wrote David Dowdy and Gypsyamber D’Souza.

It is appropriate for Justice and his team to fine-tune the mapping procedures, not to get the outcome they desire, but rather to better identify and contain the virus.  Hopefully, they have now settled on best practices that will provide a more accurate measurement.

Each change may be an improvement, but it also prompts distrust among a public that is already wary of official declarations about the virus and weary of shifting policies.


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