Our Measurement Menace of the Year Award for 2020 goes to those government officials that distorted, disguised, or buried COVID data in order to support their policy decisions.
Over the decades our Measurement Menaces of the Month and the Year awards have highlighted a lot of bad metrics, misuse of data, and downright measurement stupidity. Typically, the consequences of all that idiocy are bad decisions and/or success attributed to the wrong sources. Never before have the consequences been death. But what do you expect in 2020?
Since March, when the COVID pandemic truly took hold in the U.S. and states began issuing stay at home orders, it’s been clear that good data is key to making the right decisions. Without reliable data on how many people are sick, how many people have been hospitalized, and how many people have died, you don’t have a clue what to do because you can’t recognize or forecast trends. Moreover, without transparent, publicly available data, decision making based on that data becomes subject to manipulation for political ends. As a result the public loses trust in government institutions, policies, and decisions.
In our unique system of government, these United States are not really 50 united states. They are 50 fiefdoms that governors and state legislatures control. So, when local, state, and federal health departments started putting together statistics on the impact of COVID, the data was anything but consistent. So, the first and most important job was to figure out how to get all that data into usable shape and in one place so it could be made public and disseminated.
Unfortunately, officials at both the state and federal levels took action to allow the data to be distorted to suit their political ends. At the national level, the CDC had a system in place to collect data from hospitals. In July the Trump administration ordered hospitals to bypass the CDC and send their data to the Department of Health and Human Services. At HHS the data was no longer available to the public.
At the same time, individual states were struggling to provide their citizens and policy makers with accurate data. Some governors decided to bypass their public health departments’ policies regarding releasing all data to the public. Instead, they transferred control to departments more directly under the governor’s authority, generally when their state COVID data wasn’t convenient to the government’s plan for reopening the economy. Georgia, Arizona and Florida were the most notorious, but other states whose governors failed to follow the data or believe the science also suffered calamitous consequences.
I’m not a huge fan of our governor here in New Hampshire, but I thank God every day that he was trained as an environmental engineer and has a background in science. He is part of the reason New Hampshire is fourth from last in cases per 100,000 population.
We’ll never know how many people got sick or died from the myriad of bad decisions made by American government officials at all levels in response to the COVID pandemic. But it is clear that burying, ignoring, or fudging the data has led to needless suffering, including 300,000 dead so far. For that we name all those government officials who mishandled COVID data our Measurement Menaces of the Year. ∞