Missourians are owed full story on COVID-19 kicker: Other voices

The Examiner

Missouri’s performance fighting the coronavirus pandemic already was pretty abysmal, thanks in large part to Gov. Mike Parson’s stubborn refusal to lead with measures known to keep the virus from spreading, along with GOP lawmakers’ mocking disregard of basic safety measures. But a bad situation could turn out to be much worse than Missourians knew because of the state’s deliberate exclusion of a large group of positive test results from official infection statistics.

It turns out the daily positivity rate is far higher than the state has acknowledged — 20% to 40% higher on any given day — because officials decided to set aside results from an increasingly popular quick-result procedure that is now used in nearly a third of coronavirus tests. Rapid-result antigen testing is a highly reliable method when the result is positive but less reliable for negative results.

Since positive results are the ones that really count when determining the pandemic’s rate of spread, excluding those numbers distorts the state’s performance and gives the public a false impression of progress in keeping the virus at bay.

Hospitals and clinics rely on antigen tests so they can test staffers daily and avoid the typical three-day delay for results from slower tests such as the PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, test. Both involve a nasal swab, and the PCR is more reliable for both positive and negative results. The antigen test can deliver results in 15 minutes, and because it is so accurate for positive cases, it helps medical personnel direct infected people more quickly into quarantine.

The exclusion of antigen results means the state likely underreported 20,083 positive coronavirus cases in December alone, with another 12,228 left uncounted in official statistics from Jan. 1-19. If positive antigen-test results had not been excluded, the state would now register more than 500,000 cases, as opposed to the 456,530 reported last Friday.

The lower numbers, of course, gave Missourians the false impression that Parson’s efforts were working to keep a tighter lid on a pandemic that most definitely was not contained. Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox cited a lack of federal guidance but said last week that antigen test results would “become part of our standard public reporting” in coming days.

Skewing these numbers can only serve to undermine public confidence in the reliability of the information being delivered by the state at a time when public trust is essential to successfully keeping the pandemic at bay, especially as participation in a mass vaccination campaign requires a high degree of public trust. When lives hang in the balance, people need to know they’re not being fed sugar-coated bad news or good news that turns out to be inaccurate.

– St. Louis Post-Dispatch