But though the reporting infrastructure slows over weekends, the virus does not. Later in the week, the data “catch up,” with higher-than-average numbers on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
Holidays tend to bring the same delays as weekends, and Thanksgiving combines a long weekend with a holiday at the pandemic’s worst point yet. If the patterns that the COVID Tracking Project has documented over other holidays hold, in the next week, reporting will slow for a few days, then spike. While no one can say exactly how long labs will take to work through the holiday backlog, the current picture, of rapidly rising testing, cases, and deaths, could be blurred for days at a critical point in this third surge.
On top of the holiday-related data delays, the offices that report coronavirus data could be dealing with a larger volume of paperwork simply because of the size of this surge—which means more people getting tests, more people going into the hospital, and more people dying. While testing has grown appreciably—in the past week, the U.S. reported an average of 1.8 million tests a day, more than double the figure from three months ago—those tests can be slow to process. That’s especially true now, as new cases exceed 170,000 a day and Americans have flocked to testing centers under the misguided notion that a negative test would magically render large Thanksgiving dinners safe. This week Quest Diagnostics, which operates labs and makes COVID-19 testing equipment, said that higher demand is resulting in delays in processing results, to two to three days for most patients.
Jessica Guernsey, the public-health director for Multnomah County, Oregon, says her county began to see changes in the data before Thanksgiving. “It has more to do with the health department being overwhelmed because of sheer volume,” Guernsey says. “The system we’ve set up could be more nimble—to have the data processed and make its way into the statewide system is a fairly laborious process.”
Even with bumps in the data, Guernsey warns, the numbers are going up. “I don’t think most people looking at the data would think we’re in the clear, and none of our messaging reflects that,” she says. “We’re in each other’s care right now, and we need to make decisions that are sacrificial. We’ll have to hunker down for a while to protect other people.”
Because COVID-19 data can vary significantly from day to day, averages over the longer term paint a clearer picture of the disease’s trajectory. Decreases in the numbers of cases or deaths in the days surrounding Thanksgiving won’t be particularly meaningful until we have a wider view of the data, in the form of weekly averages. As Kissane notes, hospitals don’t get days off, so data about hospitalized patients are less volatile than other metrics. Nearly 90,000 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States, and that number has grown 89 percent since November 1.