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'Apples and oranges': DPH testing total includes 2 types of COVID-19 tests

One public health expert warns lumping the two together could artificially decrease the state's percentage of positive tests

MACON, Ga. — From the beginning, Governor Brian Kemp has said his choices are driven by data.

"We have relied on data, science and the advice of healthcare professionals to guide our approach and decision-making," said Kemp at a press conference last month.

The sheer volume of data provided by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) can make comprehending it all a challenge.

Reporting errors have compounded the challenge.

At one point, a graph had to be corrected after dates were shown out of order. 

On another day, the case count had to be changed after about 200 cases were misreported.

Most recently, the DPH admitted it's mixed two different types of COVID-19 tests -- antigen and antibody tests -- in its tally of total tests.

On Wednesday, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said she wasn't aware of that until this week.

"This is emerging information because I wasn't fully aware that both our state and CDC does have the antibody tests as part of our total tests," she said.

The two tests do different things.

Antigen tests find out if someone currently has COVID-19.

Antibody tests can help discover if somebody had COVID-19 in the past.

Dr. Colin Smith, a public health professor at Georgia State University, said lumping the two together is like comparing "apples and oranges."

Smith said combining them could artificially reduce the state's percentage of positive tests, depending on how the state does their calculations.

The percentage of positive tests is one of the metrics the federal government has said is a key indicator of whether a state should move forward with its reopening plans.

Currently, the DPH says it's included 57,000 antibody tests in the "total tests" tally on their website, roughly 14% of all the tests administered

Late Thursday, DPH spokesperson Nancy Nydam announced the department would continue including both tests in their total.

She said that follows "current Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention methodology."

A note on the DPH website says, "Total Tests include all COVID-19 tests, including molecular and [antibody]. The website will be updated to provide specific counts of each type of test as soon as possible."

So far, those specific counts have not yet been posted.

Dr. Smith worries all of these changes could hurt the DPH's credibility.

"There's one thing you have to have in public health," he said. "You have to have the public's trust."

Nydam said "DPH staff is currently working diligently to provide greater transparency in the molecular and [antibody] testing data displayed on the Daily Status Report. One of our top priorities is to provide accurate and timely data to the public and we will continue to make every effort to do so."

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