How does Oklahoma count coronavirus recoveries? It’s not an exact science

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Workers at the Wewoka Indian Health Center clinic screen people for signs of COVID-19 as they enter the clinic. Courtesy/Wewoka Indian Health Services/Facebook
As Oklahoma approaches the third phase of the governor’s plan to reopen the state, it’s unclear how long the novel coronavirus will linger in the state and how many lives the disease will take. But many people want information about a less-cited statistic: How many people are recovering?

The Oklahoma State Department of Health reports confirmed cases daily, along with an estimate of how many people have recovered from the disease. The figure isn’t based on those no longer experiencing symptoms — the agency considers someone recovered when they are not hospitalized or dead, and they’re 14 days past their initial positive test or onset of symptoms.

As of Thursday, the state reported 5,236 out of 6,270 Oklahomans infected with COVID-19 had recovered — the equivalent of 83 percent of confirmed cases.

Calculating a recovery rate is tricky. Most cases of COVID-19 are mild and people who present with no symptoms may not be tested for the disease, and aren’t counted in the data. Because methods vary state-to-state, comparisons are virtually impossible.

There are no official federal guidelines or requirements on how health departments should report recoveries, so states’ processes vary. Some don’t report the metric at all.

Oklahoma didn’t start estimating recoveries until April as — like many other states — it lacked testing capacity, and someone wasn’t considered recovered unless they received two negative test results following their initial positive, the health department said in March.

The health department tracks the metric in an effort to offer a clearer picture of the diseases’ active presence and the potential for community exposure, said Donelle Harder, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“The agency’s intent is to provide the best information available to support elected officials and decision makers as they adjust policy and business operations to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Harder said in an email.

A 14-day period was selected early into the pandemic, Harder said, and was kept for monitoring purposes. And contact tracers stay in touch with those who test positive for the duration of their illness, which is often a minimum of two weeks, she said.

“An individual must have at least three consistent days without a fever, and without using fever reducing medications, leading up to the 14-day window, or have received negative test results, in order to be deemed recovered by healthcare experts,” Harder said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not track recoveries on a national level and doesn’t offer specific criteria for counting them. However, it does have interim guidelines for when people with the disease can end home isolation, which is sometimes referred to as recovery.

Those with symptoms can stop isolating when it’s been at least three days since they’ve had a fever without using fever-reducing medication and have seen an improvement in respiratory symptoms, such as cough or shortness of breath, the guidelines say. They should wait at least 10 days after symptoms first appeared.

Along with meeting those requirements, someone could end isolation after also receiving two consecutive negative test results taken at least 24 hours apart.

Johns Hopkins University, which maintains a highly-cited COVID-19 tracker, counts the number of U.S. recoveries, but that also is an estimate.

In Texas, officials calculate the recovery total by putting survivors in two groups: the estimated 20 percent that require hospitalization are considered recovered after 32 days and those who were not hospitalized are considered recovered after 14 days, according to the Texas Tribune.

The Tulsa Health Department follows the Oklahoma State Health Department’s method of estimating recoveries, said spokeswoman Leanne Stephens.

Similar to many diseases, recoveries are helpful to measure and seeing a high recovery rate is a good sign, she said.

The data can also comfort people.

When Oklahoma’s first confirmed case of the disease was announced in a Tulsa man in March, the community rejoiced when the health department announced he had made a full recovery later that month.

While Oklahomans grieve the lives lost from the coronavirus, they “also want to celebrate those who recover,” Stephens said.

White House guidelines that outline how states should reopen do not cite recoveries as one of the metrics that should be considered. Instead, guidelines say states should watch for adequate hospital capacity and a downward trajectory of new cases.

Oklahoma is set to enter phase three of reopening on June 1, and Gov. Kevin Stitt has often touted the state’s declining number of hospitalizations. As of Thursday, there were 181 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 or who were under investigation for the disease.

 Continued reading: 

Half of Oklahoma’s reported coronavirus deaths come from care facilities such as nursing homes

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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