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Is Our Coronavirus Data Accurate? CDC Warns of Widespread Under-Reporting


The official number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. is currently hovering at around 2.3 million with just over 125,000 deaths. However, the country received a shocking wake-up call earlier this week when Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said via a phone news conference that we are likely under-reporting the number of cases.

Redfield said the actual count could be around 10 times higher than what’s being reported in the news. That means that around 20 million Americans have already been infected. This could fundamentally change our understanding of the pandemic, how COVID-19 spreads, and what the U.S. still needs to do to contain the virus.

Massive Under-Reporting

Redfield said that somewhere between 5-8% of the American population has already been infected whether they realize it or not. An overwhelming majority of these individuals likely weren’t tested, so they haven’t been included in the official case count.

So, what does this tell us about the pandemic?

It shows that many people were likely infected without their knowledge. They may have had no or mild symptoms at some point over the last few months, but they likely didn’t seek medical care. They likely recovered from the virus on their own without visiting the doctor or going to the hospital.

This shows us that many people won’t get seriously ill from the virus, but it seems to be spreading much more rapidly than anyone realized just a few months prior. However, most of the population has yet to be exposed.

How Did the CDC Reach This Conclusion?

Considering around 90% of those suspected of already having been infected were not officially tested for COVID-19, the CDC says this is just an estimate. The agency looked at numerous surveys from across the country that survey antibodies in blood samples. Looking for antibodies for the novel coronavirus in the body shows whether the person has been exposed to the virus, even if they are not currently infected. Some antibody tests have produced suspect results, but the CDC does its best to account for any inaccuracies in the data.

Reporting varies widely across the country. Some states have done a great job of sharing this data with federal health officials, while others have come under fire for withholding information, such as Georgia. The CDC compared these figures to come up with a national average.

New Risk Groups

The CDC also updated its list of who is at risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19. In addition to asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and other pre-existing conditions, those with chronic kidney disease or serious heart disease, obesity and lung diseases like emphysema are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19.

Pregnant women also seem to be responding differently to the virus than non-pregnant women. These patients are more likely to end up on a ventilator when exposed to the disease; however, there’s no evidence to suggest that pregnant women face a higher risk of dying.

Redfield announced new safety precautions for pregnant women or those considering having a child. Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman of the CDC added during the press conference, “Pregnant women need to take precautions with regard to the number of people they come in contact with, wearing face coverings, and social distancing.”

What About Young People?

There’s been a lot of concern about young people spreading the virus. The average age of those getting infected is quickly going down. Many of those testing positive for COVID-19 are in their 20s and 30s. The CDC addressed these concerns during the press conference.

The office said they are trying out new ways of reaching young people to educate them about the disease and how to protect themselves and others. They are turning to social media and other online platforms, but officials declined to share a specific example.

Officials are trying to find the best way to connect with younger people who may not care as much about their health. It’s all about finding the right wording and platform to make sure these individuals comply with the latest safety regulations.

What Does This Mean Going Forward?

Many of those that have already been infected likely won’t need to be hospitalized, so this may work to our advantage. Most states and cities have been able to keep up with the number of hospitalizations, and we haven’t heard many reports of facilities running out of ventilators, ICU beds, or personal protective equipment.

This could mean that we are finally getting the virus under control even as the number of cases ticks up. New patients will likely be younger and symptom-free without going to the emergency room. This could also inch us closer to what’s known as herd immunity. The more people get infected without getting sick, the less likely they are to spread it on to dozens of other people. They may spread it to just one or two people, instead of five or six.

As a healthcare provider, keep this information in mind when talking to your patients. There’s a good chance the virus is much more present in your community than what’s being reported in the news, so encourage everyone to err on the side of caution.

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