SARS-CoV-2 is called a “novel” coronavirus because it is new. This newness, much to the chagrin of the need-to-know-now world we live in, means much remains unknown about the long-term effects of COVID-19, the illness the virus causes.
Other unknowns seem to be of humans’ own making. For example, it was hard to track the virus in the United States early on because diagnostic testing wasn’t widely available.
Washington state has had various technical hiccups in reporting data about the pandemic — most recently, in counting tests that have come back negative — leaving the public temporarily in the dark about particular metrics.
On this week’s FAQ Friday, we’re answering your questions about what information is available in Washington, and clarifying reporting about face coverings that has come out since last week’s FAQ.
If you have a question you haven’t seen addressed in The Seattle Times’ coverage, ask it at st.news/coronavirus-questions or via the form at the bottom of this article.
Why don’t we know how many people in Washington state have recovered from COVID-19?
The state Department of Health (DOH) has data on confirmed cases of COVID-19, as well as hospitalizations and deaths, but doesn’t track how many people have recovered.
This is because so little is known about what recovery looks like, DOH spokesperson Lisa Stromme Warren wrote in an email.
“There is no standard definition for how to define ‘recovery,’ ” she wrote.
Another limiting factor is the time it would take to call everyone who has had COVID-19 to determine when their symptoms went away, Stromme Warren wrote.
Like much about the virus, researchers are learning about how and when people recover from the illness it causes.
There is an emerging group of patients dubbed “long-haulers” who appear to battle symptoms for months. More study is needed to discover whether the “long-haulers” are dealing with an active infection or their prolonged symptoms are the result of a lingering immune response.
“The bottom line is: We just don’t know,” Adam Lauring, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Michigan, told The Washington Post.
Why have Washington’s testing numbers seemed to decrease in August?
DOH has stopped releasing the number of tests that have come back negative. Beginning Aug. 1, the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard showed only a count of positive tests, which didn’t give the full picture of how many tests were being performed. The agency cited technical difficulties.
About 10 days later, the DOH released one day’s worth of what it called “preliminary” data, then stopped reporting testing numbers altogether on Aug. 12, announcing it is changing the way it counts negative tests.
Secretary of Health John Wiesman said the state had been counting only a person’s initial negative test. If a person tested negative a second time, that test wasn’t included in the state’s tallies. Going forward, DOH’s dashboard will show the total number of tests administered, rather than the number of people tested.
In the meantime, the DOH won’t report testing totals until its new data reporting system is operational, which it estimates will be next week.
This also means the DOH has been unable to calculate the statewide positivity rate: the percentage of total tests that have come back positive. That’s a key metric used by public-health officials and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office to evaluate the virus’s spread.
DOH officials largely have downplayed the impacts of data issues over recent months, saying they haven’t hurt Washington’s public-health response. With the most recent problems, DOH stressed that the most important COVID-19 metric — the count of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus — is unaffected and the state’s efforts to curb the virus aren’t hampered.
“Fortunately, we are confident that we know the general nature of the positivity rate, which has been relatively stable, and the delta between getting the exact number is not large enough to really upset decision-making,” Inslee said at a news conference Aug. 13.
Should neck gaiters be used as masks for COVID-19 protection and prevention?
Last week’s coronavirus FAQ referenced a study in which researchers at Duke University seemed to find that neck gaiters didn’t work well to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and could actually be worse than no mask at all because the porous fabric could break bigger droplets into smaller ones that hang in the air longer.
News coverage of the study caught the attention of aerosol scientists, who said masks creating more droplets is unlikely.
“The fabrics are not acting as a sharp sieve. That’s not how filtration works,” Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, told The New York Times.
Marr is one of the world’s leading authorities on aerosols. Her own tests on neck gaiters, which are popular with runners, had a different result. The study examined two types of gaiters: a single-layer fabric made of 100% polyester, and two layers consisting of 87% polyester and 13% elastane.
Both types worked to limit droplets from escaping. When the single-layer fabric was doubled up, it performed even better.
Bottom line: Cover your nose and mouth — preferably with multiple layers, a snug fit and no gaps — and continue to keep your distance even with a mask on.
Seattle Times staff reporters Mary Hudetz and Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.