Greene County has ‘green zone’ COVID test rate
If some of the people living in a defined community like Springfield have to get tested for COVID-19, how much of that test group comes back positive?
The answer to that question is known as “positivity rate.” It tells an early, important chapter in the story of how coronavirus spreads through a community.
Positivity rate shows how common the virus is in a given population. It also shows whether there’s enough testing. “Enough,” for public health experts, means so much testing is available that even cases with no symptoms can be brought under control. Indicators like hospitalizations and deaths tend to lag behind testing data.
But if a community’s positivity rate is high, public health experts generally agree that testing needs to be expanded.
Greene County’s rate is 4.58 percent, the health department said Friday night. That’s relatively low — just inside the government’s so-called “green zone.”
Those zones will be explained more later in this story, but generally: Green is good, red is bad, and yellow is in between.
The News-Leader requested the Greene County positivity rate. It’s not published on the county’s online recovery dashboard currently, but it might be added in a future update, a health department spokesperson said Friday night.
To date, Missouri’s positivity rate — 10.6 percent — is higher than the nation as a whole, at 6.4 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University. Missouri is a red zone; America is a yellow zone.
Last month, both were yellow, according to White House data.
19 percent? ‘Expect more exposures’
The leader of CoxHealth, Steve Edwards, brought attention to positivity rates earlier this week.
On Wednesday he used Twitter to share some recent stats — including positivity rate — covering Cox’s regional footprint. It covers dozens of counties, not just Springfield.
The patients who took the Cox tests were all showing symptoms, and 19 percent of them turned up positive that day. The most recent 7-day average was also 19 percent, according to the dashboard Edwards shared.
Putting 19 percent into context: It’s high. The Cox test group could be considered in the “red zone,” which means any score above 10 percent.
The White House coronavirus task force and Dr. Anthony Fauci use a red-yellow-green color code to label COVID-19 statistics. It goes (roughly) like this:
- Green. Not that bad, considering there’s a pandemic. On May 12, the World Health Organization told governments that before “reopening,” they should keep the positivity rate below 5 percent for 14 days.
- Yellow. Risky, with a 5 to 10 percent positivity rate. Experts recommend “yellow” zones take measures like a “hybrid” of online and in-person schooling. While being interviewed by the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Fauci warned Aug. 3 that “what we’re seeing in some of the yellow states and other states is that same insidious increase in the percent of positives that we’ve seen and pointed out.”
- Red. Active or imminent outbreak, positivity rate of 10 percent or more. To avoid becoming a red zone, Fauci cautioned the 50 states: “You may need to pause, you may need to drop back a little bit.” He said, “I don’t think you necessarily have to revert to going all the way back to closing,” but states should intensify “critical” safety measures like masks, six feet of physical distance and washing hands.
What does that mean for Springfield?
Edwards offered one answer as he commented on the numbers in his tweet.
“Expect more exposures with school openings and large influx of university students. Be safe.”
Edwards sent an email to the News-Leader Friday night to further explain.
“We saw some initial leveling of the Greene County data after masking,” he wrote. “However — since the worrisome outbreak in the jail, and likely a few other factors — it is bumping up again. With schools and universities reopening, this is absolutely the worst time to be at the highest asymptomatic positive rates in our region.”
Edwards also noted that positivity rate for the Cox service region is generally higher than the rate for Greene County alone.
“Also,” he wrote, “Springfield is an island surrounded by the rest of Greene County and our adjacent counties that have chosen not to mandate effective public health measures such as masking.”
Edwards isn’t the only one asking us to watch ourselves.
CovidActNow, an information project by two elite coastal universities and a health insurance consultancy, doesn’t draw much of a green-yellow distinction between the rates for Greene County and surrounding area. It labels both Greene County and Missouri overall as “at risk of outbreak.”
One reason is Missouri’s positivity rate, at 10.6 percent, just inside the red threshold. Another is Greene County’s infection rate: On average, each person in Greene County with COVID is infecting 1.19 other people, CovidActNow reported. That’s considered a relatively rapid spread.
Keeping Greene County green zone
Clay Goddard, Springfield-Greene County health director, struck a reassuring tone at a Friday afternoon news briefing.
The News-Leader asked him about that 19 percent Cox rate. Goddard noted that it describes patients seeking treatment.
“Symptomatic cases at that rate wouldn’t surprise me,” he told reporters, “because those are people who have disease symptoms and are actually seeking testing for that, so that’s not a measure of our entire testing bandwidth.”
In fact, Goddard expressed optimism about the Springfield area’s “testing capability.” On the county’s recovery dashboard, a dial labeled with that phrase scored Greene County at 4.6 out of 10 on Friday.
That’s not a failing grade, Goddard said. The dial can be “confusing.”
“It means we’re succeeding,” he said, “It means we’re doing more testing, and that really I think the limitations we have on testing right now is staffing.”
The county is using all of the “very important assets” at its disposal, Goddard argued. If more people get infected with COVID-19, the county could set up more testing, he said – “if we get in the red on that dial.”
Goddard said, “We’ve been very, very fortunate in this community to have adequate testing with very few hiccups along the way. I’ll knock on wood so I don’t hex us on that one.”
‘We’re going to see what happens’
Data may have put Greene County in the green zone earlier this month, but in some ways the county is acting like a yellow zone in terms of taking precautions, particularly with schools and colleges going back in session.
“Right now we’re firmly in an area where we should be in hybrid classes,” Goddard said, “and that’s what (Springfield Public Schools) is kicking off, doing that hybrid model that reduces class densities. Most of your (colleges and universities) are using some form of hybrid education where they’ll have a mix of seated and some online learning.”
At the briefing, like Fauci, Goddard reminded everyone to wear masks, wash hands and practice social distancing when needed, and not to let one’s guard down around family and friends.
“It’s a moving target. We’re going to see what happens over the course of the fall,” he said. “You know, hopefully we’ll see a peak in our disease rates and we’ll be able to navigate this.”
Gregory Holman is the investigative reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org and consider supporting vital local journalism by subscribing. Learn more by visiting News-Leader.com/subscribe.
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