'Bad data is worse than no data': Austin health officials unsure how storm affected coronavirus spread

Photo of a snowy residential street
Some Travis County residents stayed home during Winter Storm Uri. Others sought shelter outside their households. (Amy Bryant/Community Impact Newspaper)

Some Travis County residents stayed home during Winter Storm Uri. Others sought shelter outside their households. (Amy Bryant/Community Impact Newspaper)

After hazardous weather and road conditions stalled Austin Public Health's coronavirus testing Feb. 13-21, the organization is working to collect updated COVID-19 transmission data. State and local health leaders have warned there may be a lag before data catches up to reality. According to Dr. Jason Pickett, the Austin-Travis County alternate health authority, authorities are not sure whether coronavirus transmission was heightened or stifled during the winter storm.

"The truth is we don't know," Pickett told Travis County commissioners at a Feb. 23 meeting. "We do know that the weather and the road conditions significantly limited movement of people throughout our community, and that's a good thing when it comes to the virus. However, a lot of people had to flee homes that lacked power or water or heat or had broken pipes and then cohorted with other family members or friends and lived together in close quarters, which may not be a good thing."

Some metrics APH uses to track the Austin community's collective coronavirus risk will not be updated for several days. Pickett said updated seven-day moving averages of positive coronavirus tests and coronavirus-related hospital admissions would be updated again Feb. 27 once a new week of normal data collection has taken place. Those metrics are used as key risk indicators and have bearing on whether the Austin-Travis County area stays at its current Stage 4 level of risk.

In addition to interruptions in APH's testing services, other factors may have also played a role in making data from last week less reliable than usual—and "bad data is worse than no data," according to Pickett.

"We don't know how that disaster impact may have affected individual clinician behavior in ordering tests for people coming into the emergency department," he said. "Additionally, there's a substantial change in patient behavior as due to the weather patients may have delayed presenting to the hospitals and may have delayed calling 911."

While weekly averages are still pending, APH reported 237 new COVID-19 cases for Feb. 24. Currently, 304 coronavirus patients are hospitalized in the Austin metropolitan area.
By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. A graduate of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio before joining Community Impact in Austin.


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