Numbers Game: Why Covid-19 counts don’t appear to match up, but really do


GRANITE COUNTY – Throughout the course of the Corona Virus pandemic people have been in conflict about what is really going on. Masks, social distancing and hand washing have all become highly politicized.

But the truth of the matter is that the numbers – the real numbers – don’t lie.

People do.

Recently the Flint Creek Courier posted an update from the Facebook page of Granite County Public Health (GCPH) which drew comments that the numbers some readers had were different than what GCPH had. To solve the mystery of the varying tallies, the Courier looked into where these numbers are generated and why they may differ from other sources at times.

In Montana, one of the main sources that people draw their Covid-19 information from is Montana Response: Covid-19. This site is the official state-run website that collects reports from county public health agencies around Montana and that is updated each day at approximately 10 a.m.

As of Wednesday, October 7, 2020 at 8:21 a.m. the state reporting site has Granite County with 8 active cases.

But posts from GCPH indicate a higher tally. As of approximately 9:30 p.m. Tuesday night they were reporting 13.

So which number is right?

They both are, to an extent.

Following the GCPH on Facebook is the best way to stay abreast of the current Covid-19 situation in Granite County. Regularly checking the state website isn’t a bad second option, but its data is only as good as the reports that the Granite County Public health Nurse gives it.

“(The process is) a lab notifying me, me notifying a patient and gathering all of their information, and getting it all input into a state system,” said Debra Robinson, the Public Health Nurse for Granite County and several surrounding counties. “That’s why Jackie (Bolster) has started putting it on our (GCPH) Facebook page … That’s where you’re going to find the accurate count. She calls me every day and we go over what we have.”

According to Bolster, Public Health Assistant for Granite County, the numbers for the state website may not reflect the most recent data from individual counties, Granite County included. The difference is because of the lack of manpower to keep the state website up to date with the individual counties.

"(Granite County Public Health) Facebook page … That’s where you’re going to find the accurate count." ~ Deb Robinson

But positive cases take time to follow up on and get input into the state system. With health workers like Robinson and Bolster stretched to the limit already, inputting the data into the state system can be challenging. And depending when it gets reported, the state website may be several days behind the actual total for a given county.


The ‘smartest’ person in the room

Bolster also indicated that she has received reports of Granite County residents saying that the numbers being reported are not accurate and telling other that they know the ‘real numbers’. Bolster suggested that should you run across such an individual that you question where they are getting their information from and check it against the official data from the county and state.


Wanting the five W’s

Residents also wonder who, what, when, why, and where the cases are coming from. It’s an issue that enters the debate over patient privacy against the community’s right to know.

When someone tests positive for Covid-19 GCPH starts the process of contact tracing – determining who the infected person may have exposed in the 48 hours previous to their positive test. If someone is determined to be at risk from the infected patient, GCPH contacts those individuals directly.

So in essence, if you don’t receive a call telling you that you’ve been exposed to the virus, you probably haven’t.

“If someone tests positive, then as part of the contact tracing we contact those individuals,” said Robinson. “So if you haven’t been specifically contacted by me (a county health worker) then you likely haven’t been exposed.”


To Quarantine or not quarantine, that is the question

Robinson explained that if you have been identified as someone who was directly exposed to someone who has tested positive, then you should quarantine for 14 days. That time period is to allow any symptoms that you might have to present themselves and to keep those around you safe while you are asymptomatic. If exposed, you could test negative even though the virus is still incubating within your body.

If you just go in to get tested on your own accord, then you should quarantine until the test results are back. That precaution is in case you do test positive.

Bolster used the example of a husband who might work with a coworker that has tested positive. The husband may have been directly exposed but his wife only secondarily. In a case such as this, the husband should quarantine from his wife and family, as well as coworkers and friends, until he is cleared by the county health department. That period would be 14 days.

Bolster also noted that while in quarantine, people can do solo activities like take a drive, go for a walk or do activities like fishing or gathering wood as long as they do it alone.

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