PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – On Tuesday, Rhode Island health officials reported 156 new coronavirus cases found in testing the day before.
A day later, the same health officials revised the total they gave out on Tuesday — and more than doubled the figure to 317.
Similar revisions to the state’s coronavirus data are made daily by the R.I. Department of Health, but unless someone is watching closely, the changes are easy to miss.
On the department’s front-facing website — which includes updated totals and charts showing trends — the state reports an initial case total, usually around noon Monday through Friday. But on a separate, less user-friendly page, past-day revisions show up on a spreadsheet that tracks historic data.
Until recently, such revisions would typically account for a handful of cases scattered across several days. But as cases have begun to rise more rapidly – topping 300 a day three separate times over the past week – the daily revisions have become more substantial.
State officials defend their methodology, saying the daily reports include “100% of the information” available at that time. And they insist the information is not misleading, but rather the byproduct of having to provide new information as quickly as possible to a public that’s hungry for updates.
“There is tremendous demand for COVID-19 data and information,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken explained in an email. “We are responding to that demand by posting the most recent data we have each day, while also making all of our historical numbers fully available.”
Wendelken, whose department is responsible for the collection and dissemination of COVID-19 data, also called Tuesday’s increase “a little unique.” He pointed to a lab reporting issue that resulted in an unusual tranche of results coming in on a single day.
“We don’t usually see large increases like this,” he added.
Yet revisions of some sort have become routine, and they’re typically the result of a delay in reporting. Private labs that administer coronavirus tests often receive results after the deadline to report daily totals to the Health Department in time for that day’s release.
As is standard, the lab will report those results to the Health Department on a subsequent day, but health officials will add the positive cases to whatever day the results actually came back.
In other instances, health officials will periodically audit data sets provided by private labs. The reviews can result in adjustments being made to daily amounts dating back several weeks, sometimes even months. And while cases are typically added to prior-day case totals, there are also days when cases are removed.
For example, if someone from out out-of-state tests positive for the virus, the case is first added to the state’s total, but later removed after contact tracing determines the person isn’t a Rhode Islander.
The biggest revisions happen with cases, but similar changes are sometimes made to hospitalization data. If a person is admitted late in the evening, hospitals will not report until the following day, meaning a revision must be made. (This happens less frequently and isn’t as noticeable, as hospitalizations constantly fluctuate with admissions and discharges.)
For deaths, the state takes the opposite approach, reporting out all new deaths discovered over the prior 24 hours, even if the person died several days before and the test results only just came back. (The official date of death shows up on the spreadsheet of historic data.)
To track all of these revisions, 12 News incorporates the daily changes into the regularly updated charts on the WPRI.com COVID tracking page here.
Additionally, daily news stories about the numbers typically include both daily cases reported by the state, along with a combination of all cases added over the past two weeks. (The COVID-19 incubation period is 14 days.)
On balance, Rhode Island is better than most states when it comes to collecting and providing coronavirus data. The state has earned a data quality rating of A+ from The COVID Tracking Project, an influential nonprofit that tracks and compiles data from across the country.
But Wendelken said there are always new ways to make the information clearer.
“We could probably note more clearly on our data page that our numbers are preliminary,” he said.