If you believe some data Philadelphia has posted online, the city’s mask mandate should have been lifted on Monday. However, the city says it is relying on a different set of internal data, and that’s why the mask mandate is still in place.
Still, with mask mandates being repealed nearly everywhere one turns, the city says it may eventually use the data set “that most accurately represents people’s experiences.” Officials plan to hold a Covid briefing Wednesday and, “will have a resolution to this at that time,” according to a spokesperson at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
In order for the mask mandate to be dropped — which in this case is moving to the “all clear” threshold — the city has said three of the four conditions must be met:
· Average new cases per day is less than 100.
· Hospitalizations are under 50.
· Percent positivity is under 2%.
· Cases have not risen by more than 50% in the previous 10 days.
Mid-day on Monday, the city published the following data on Twitter:
· Avg. new cases per day: 88
· Hospitalizations: 183
· Percent positivity: 2.8%
· Rise in cases: Cases have not risen by more than 50% in the previous 10 days.
The first and last items — average new cases a day and “rise in cases” — are both clearly compliant with the outlined criteria. So, if just one more criterion can be met, the city would move to “all clear.”
The hospitalization category — a count of total people hospitalized for Covid (not a per capita rate) — fails, given that there are currently 183 and that number needs to be under 50.
So, the final criterion remaining is “percent positivity.”
The city said on Monday that percent positivity was 2.8% — clearly failing because it is above the 2% threshold the city has set to move to “all clear.” Yet at the same time, the city’s own published data directly contradicts that number.
On Feb. 13, the percent positivity was 2.0%, according to the city’s data website. It fell again the next week when it landed at 1.7% on Feb. 20. And then the positivity rate fell a third time to 1.2% as of Feb. 27.
Numerous people in the department’s Twitter feed have pointed out the discrepancy between what the city’s statistics page says versus what it is posting on Twitter.
“Can you provide some clarity on how the % positive number is reached? The discrepancy between the city’s website info and the info tweeted out seems to have made some people skeptical of the Health Dept. Certainly something nobody wants,” one Twitter user responded.
“I hope they respond, but I doubt they will because lots of people are very angry in these replies,” another user tweeted. “Meanwhile, I just want to know what the correct data is because I’m a math nerd and now I’m curious! Clearly, something has gone awry in their data and/or calculations.”
“The reason for the disconnect is that there are many ways to determine percent positivity,” said James Garrow, communications director with the city’s health department.
“The graph on the COVID website presents the data using one interpretation, [while] an internal dashboard that we use presents it a different way. For example, the graph on the website is the percentage of all antigen and PCR tests received that come back positive. The percent positivity that we have been using for the COVID Levels includes only PCR tests and has a three-day lag.
“Neither method, or any other method, is more correct. They both have benefits and shortcomings. A lag is helpful to ensure that we have all of the data and are presenting the most complete dataset, but it’s difficult for people to interpret. Including all types of tests is useful because it gives us the broadest denominator, but the tests work on different timelines so if two people get tested on the same day, the antigen test would show up in a percent positivity calculation days before the PCR test would, which can be confusing,” Garrow concluded.
“[D]ue to changes in what we’re seeing in real life we are in active discussions about what changes could happen to allow us to use the percent positivity figure that most accurately represents people’s experiences. We’re holding a COVID briefing tomorrow and will have a resolution to this at that time,” he added.
The confusion around the department’s data comes as mask mandates are falling away at an astonishing pace around the country after the Omicron variant caused a spike that began to show its impact just after Thanksgiving.
By early February, states including New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon and California had all either scrapped their indoor mask mandates, or at least had scheduled a date on which the mandates would end.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control published new guidelines that radically altered the calculus.
“The new guidelines suggest that 70 percent of Americans can now stop wearing masks, and no longer need to social distance or avoid crowded indoor spaces,” the New York Times reported.
Many of those states that already dropped their indoor mask mandates are now in the process of reviewing or ending the mask mandates for school children. For example, Delaware’s school mask mandate ends at 6:00 p.m. Tuesday.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports