The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new political battleground over the coronavirus? Math.

America's response to the emergence of the novel coronavirus earlier this year was unusually dependent upon math. Soon after the virus was confirmed to be spreading without containment, we learned about the need to reduce the immediate spike in new infections to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. This was visualized neatly with a graph showing the difference between slow and rapid spreads of the virus.

The graph became so ubiquitous that even President Trump at one point stood beside an iteration of it as his team advocated for broad social distancing efforts.

As the virus has continued to spread, experts and more casual observers have tracked daily numbers to evaluate the progress being made. Seeing a gap in data on daily testing, a group of volunteers established a project to compile individual state reports. Dashboards like the one created by researchers from Johns Hopkins University became go-to destinations for information about the virus’s spread. More sophisticated users tracked the reproduction number for the virus by state, a measure of its effective contagiousness. And when the Trump administration decided to encourage a scaling back of the containment measures, which had left a number of businesses closed, it established numeric benchmarks that states were supposed to meet before doing so.

When numbers and politics overlap, though, tension often emerges. If facts are stubborn things, numbers are nearly immobile — but not irreplaceable. In recent weeks, we have seen a number of occasions when the numbers related to the coronavirus pandemic have been misrepresented, altered or made a focus of efforts at reinterpretation as the inertia of political motivation has pushed against mathematical reality.

On Monday evening, Florida Today reported that the head of the Florida Department of Health’s data team claimed to have been forced from her position earlier this month. Rebekah Jones helped create a localized dashboard of coronavirus information used to track the spread of the virus in the state. A few weeks ago, though, control over the information was taken away from the department.

In a farewell note, Jones offered a word of caution about the data still being presented on the site.

“I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months,” Jones wrote. “After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”

Once the White House gave the green light for states to scale back distancing measures at the end of April, Florida quickly moved forward with doing so. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a strong Trump ally, announced that the state would begin to reopen on May 4 — one day before Jones was removed from her position. The state did not reply to questions from Florida Today about the change in management of the data.

In Georgia, a different data-based kerfuffle emerged late last week. The state, which moved even more rapidly than Florida to scale back social distancing measures, has been a subject of scrutiny about whether it moved too quickly. So far, neither Georgia nor Florida has seen a significant increase in new infections — but things have not gone quite as well as one graph from the state’s Department of Public Health made it seem.

Political reporter Stephen Fowler noticed an anomaly in the graph showing a consistent downward trend in new cases in several large counties. That trend was a function of the data being shown out of order — May 1 was followed by April 30, which was followed by May 6, for example. The state claimed it had made a mistake, seeking to show data in a more readable way, without success. As Fowler noted, this wasn’t the primary graph detailing the spread of the virus on the site, bolstering the idea that it was simply a mistake, albeit a mistake that, at first glance, bolstered Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen Georgia.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, though, this was only one of a number of data mistakes or changes made by the state government. To some extent, this is a natural function of the fluid, shifting pandemic. It nonetheless raises questions about the validity of the numbers being used to evaluate Georgia’s progress and introduces the possibility of outside influence.

Trump and his allies are certainly aware of the focus on the numbers undergirding the pandemic. The president has consistently focused on the number of new cases of coronavirus and the death toll from covid-19, the disease it causes, as measures of his administration’s success. At times, he has been explicit about his efforts to keep the numbers from being inflated, as when he said at the beginning of March that he preferred to keep passengers on a ship anchored near San Francisco to prevent the number of cases in the United States from spiking.

Earlier this month, Axios reported on a different effort by the administration to tweak the numbers. Worried about a continually increasing death toll from the virus, Trump — echoing voices on Fox News and in the conservative media — argued that the totals were being overcounted. In reality, the death toll is almost certainly being significantly undercounted, but that is far less politically useful to a president seeking reelection in November.

Again, there is a natural uncertainty to a number of these metrics, offering cover to efforts to shape what they say. In Nebraska, counts of new infections at meatpacking plants were climbing quickly — until the state stopped reporting the numbers. Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) argued that some of those who had been infected were misreporting their places of employment, making the numbers seem worse than they were. Public pressure eventually helped prompt the companies to release information about new infections.

Nationally, the data show that the number of new cases each day and the number of deaths from covid-19 have each declined. That’s obviously good news and bolsters the idea that the nation can cautiously begin relaxing some containment efforts. The question that arises, however, is whether states and the federal government will respond if those cases begin to rapidly increase again. Will there be a new push for social distancing rules?

Or will the focus instead be on presenting numbers that make new containment measures seem less urgent?