Roanoke tops NYTimes list for virus deaths, but health leaders say reporting isn’t accurate



ROANOKE, Va. – Local health leaders say they’re concerned with the New York Times’ reporting on COVID-19 cases in Roanoke.

The Times said Roanoke is second in the country for daily death rate increases, but the Department of Health said that’s just not true.

Dr. Molly O’Dell leads the Roanoke-Alleghany Health District. She and Dr. Thomas Kerkering with Virginia Tech Carilion sent a letter to the New York Times asking them to correct the mistake.

“My first thought was where did they get this information?” O’Dell said. “Whether that’s erroneous as we’ll assume this is, or whether that’s intentional, we have to be curious individuals.”

In a New York Times data tracker, the Roanoke metro area sits on a list it does not want to be on. It’s ranked second in the country for the highest average daily growth rate of COVID-19 deaths. O’Dell said the Times mistook regional data for local data and then made another error.

“Then the second thing they did, is attribute those deaths to having occurred over a two-week period, and all of those deaths have occurred over an eight-week period,” O’Dell said.

A New York Times spokesperson responded to a 10 News request for comment.

“This particular article is about metro areas. As you note, metro areas encompass larger areas than a city. We believe metropolitan areas are helpful units because they reflect the places where people socialize, commute and share health care resources. As it is currently structured, The New York Times database counts cases when they are first reported, not necessarily when they occurred.

Our data is based on a dataset compiled by a team of several dozen New York Times journalists working with data scientists and student journalists from Northwestern University, the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. They have been tracking the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States at the county level since late January. You can read more about the process here.

Our editors are separately responding to the VA department of health in more detail.” — New York Times statement

This is just the latest data mix-up in the COVID-19 pandemic. Separate from this situation, the state itself is having trouble determining where cases are, which has led to confusion.

O’Dell said it’s because labs are omitting one crucial data point. Instead of using the patients’ full nine digit zip codes, labs are using the five-digit zip code which, many times, crosses jurisdictions and leads to confusion.

“Over 50% of the cases that are reported somebody has to call either the provider or the patient to get some part of the data filled in,” O’Dell.

O’Dell said it’s time well spent to get it right, but it’s a major uphill battle. There are many inputs and outputs and getting it perfect is impossible.

“Everything about this is a work in progress, including trying to figure out what is the most meaningful data and what is the way to get the data to the public in the most accurate way,” O’Dell said.

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