Vice President Mike Pence arrives at the Department of Human and Health Services Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, and is greeted by Secretary Alex Azar.

Vice President Mike Pence arrives at the Department of Human and Health Services Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, and is greeted by Secretary Alex Azar. D. Myles Cullen/White House

The Official Coronavirus Numbers Are Wrong, and Everyone Knows It

Because the U.S. data on coronavirus infections are so deeply flawed, the quantification of the outbreak obscures more than it illuminates.

We know, irrefutably, one thing about the coronavirus in the United States: The number of cases reported in every chart and table is far too low.

The data are untrustworthy because the processes we used to get them were flawed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing procedures missed the bulk of the cases. They focused exclusively on travelers, rather than testing more broadly, because that seemed like the best way to catch cases entering the country.

 

Just days ago, it was not clear that the virus had spread solely from domestic contact at all. But then cases began popping up with no known international connection. What public-health experts call “community spread” had arrived in the United States. The virus would not be stopped by tight borders, because it was already propagating domestically. Trevor Bedford’s lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which studies viral evolution, concluded there is “firm evidence” that, at least in Washington State, the coronavirus had been spreading undetected for weeks. Now different projections estimate that 20 to 1,500 people have already been infected in the greater Seattle area. In California, too, the disease appears to be spreading, although the limited testing means that no one is quite sure how far.

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