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States’ reporting of virus testing data leads to confusion | News, Sports, Jobs

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FILE – In this May 20, 2020, file photo, Salt Lake County Health Department public health nurse Lee Cherie Booth performs a coronavirus test outside the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City. Public health officials have said robust testing for the coronavirus is essential to safely lifting stay-at-home orders and business closures, but states are creating confusion in the way they are reporting the data. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

By MICHELLE R. SMITH Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Elected officials, businesses and others are depending on coronavirus testing and infection-rate data as states reopen so that they will know if a second wave of contagion is coming — and whether another round of stay-at-home orders or closings might be needed.

But states are reporting those figures in different ways, and that can lead to frustration and confusion about what the numbers mean. In some places, there have been data gaps that leave local leaders wondering whether they should loosen or tighten restrictions. In others, officials are accused of spinning the numbers to make their states look better and justify reopening.

In a continuing theme for the outbreak in the United States, a lack of federal leadership persists. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been lumping together tests that measure different things.

Such errors render the CDC numbers about how many Americans are infected “uninterpretable,” creating a misleading picture for people trying to make decisions based on the data, said Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute,

“It is incumbent on health departments and the CDC to make sure they’re presenting information that’s accurate. And if they can’t get it, then don’t show the data at all,” Jha said. “Faulty data is much, much worse than no data.”

Officials at the CDC and in multiple states have acknowledged that they combined the results of viral tests, which detect active cases of the virus essentially from the onset of infection, with antibody tests, which check for proteins that develop a week or more after infection and show whether a person has been exposed at some point in the past.

Viral test results should be reported separately, public health experts say. That allows for tracking of how many people have confirmed active infections, the percentage of people testing positive and how those numbers change over time — all crucial for guiding public policy.

Mixing the results makes it difficult to understand how the virus is spreading. It can give the false impression that the rate of positive test results is declining.

The CDC told The Associated Press on Friday that the problem started several weeks ago when the agency began collecting data from states using an electronic reporting system that had been developed for other diseases. At the time, nearly all lab results being reported were from live viral testing. But in the ensuing weeks, antibody tests expanded and CDC officials realized they had a growing number of those mixing in with the viral results, the CDC’s Dr. Daniel Pollock said.

Pollock said officials are working to separate the data, but it is a labor-intensive process that could take another week or two. He acknowledged the agency could have moved to fix the problem sooner.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said.

AP found at least nine states are similarly mixing results or have done so at some point. They include Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey used a graph showing a declining rate of positive tests earlier this month when he announced that barbers, salons and restaurants could reopen.

Ducey did not disclose during the televised news conference that the figures combined diagnostic and antibody tests. Positive results from diagnostic tests were declining, according to published state data, but adding the antibody tests made the decline look steeper.

Some states combined results only briefly and say it was unintentional. Delaware said it has “shifted focus” from reporting antibody tests and toward viral tests as they have become more available following nationwide shortages. Maine, Texas, Vermont and Virginia say they have stopped lumping results together, and Georgia is working on a fix.

But in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, the practice continues.

In Georgia, antibody tests were about 14% of the total, while in Mississippi, officials said they were around 3%.

It’s not clear to what extent the practice is clouding the national picture. The CDC told AP it knew of nine states that submitted viral and antibody test data together, but the list included some states that say they report those numbers separately, including Alabama and Kansas.

The CDC also gave the AP a list of 18 states it said had reported viral tests only, but that list included Pennsylvania, Virginia and Vermont, all of which have said they mixed the two kinds of tests together.

Jennifer Nuzzo, at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said many of the problems at the state level could be due to the challenges of deploying a disease surveillance system amid the chaos of a pandemic. Health departments often lack current technology and rely on paper forms and other outdated systems.

Maine officials say it’s not possible to release total test numbers more than once a week because the data must be collected from multiple outside labs doing the tests.

Rhode Island stopped updating certain data while it made the transition to a more sophisticated computer system. But the switch happened as the state was easing stay-home restrictions and had one of the highest 14-day rates of new infections per capita in the nation.

Some states have made it difficult to understand how cases and deaths are trending.

Iowa previously posted new positive cases and deaths daily but stopped once the governor changed her focus to reopening the economy. Now the state’s website lists rolling totals. Those who want to identify trends must do the math themselves.

Kansas’s governor used to open media briefings with daily reports on positive test results and deaths but stopped doing that in early May when she began a push to reopen.

Meanwhile, health officials in Georgia, one of the first states to ease restrictions, published a graph showing dates out of chronological order, making a decline appear smoother than it actually was. The state health commissioner vowed to do better.

Other states are not giving out information on how particular sectors of the community are being affected. In Nebraska, officials refuse to confirm how many cases are tied to specific meatpacking plants, sites that have been coronavirus hot spots in several states.

Nuzzo said COVID-19 has become politicized, creating pressure for officials to make their states’ data look good.

“It may feel tempting to want to manipulate the numbers to look rosier than the situation really is,” she said. “But that’s a short-lived strategy. You can’t hide dead bodies.”

___

Associated Press writers Mike Stobbe in New York; Christina A. Cassidy and Ben Nadler in Atlanta; Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix; Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi; Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas; Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vermont; Randall Chase in Dover, Delaware; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; David Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; and Grant Schulte in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.

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Labor Day Festival canceled | News, Sports, Jobs

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ISHPEMING — Add the Labor Day Festival, put on by the Upper Peninsula Regional Labor Federation, as another event canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event, which would have been the 31st consecutive festival, was scheduled to take place on Sept. 7 at Lake Bancroft Park in Ishpeming.

UPRLF President Mike Thibault confirmed the cancellation was related to the pandemic.

“We made a decision pretty early on that it was a year that we’d have to skip because we do get a couple thousand people there and there’s no social distancing,” Thibault said. “I mean, it’d be pretty hard to do.”

He acknowledged it was a hard decision.

“It’s a day that we recognize working families and share the day with working families and employees across the U.P.,” Thibault said.

The Labor Day Festival, he noted, typically entails a parade through Ishpeming, a picnic lunch and guest speakers from various affiliated labor unions. With 2020 being an election year, the event likely would have included elected officials and people running for office.

The UPRLF is the parent organization to the Central Labor Councils in the U.P. Community labor councils in the U.P. provide the grassroots network of the labor movement’s efforts to ensure that economic, education, health care and other policies benefit working families, according to its website at www.uplabor.com.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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US Allows H-1B Visa Holders To Return For Same Jobs They Did Before Ban

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US Allows H-1B Visa Holders To Return For Same Jobs They Did Before Ban

Trump administration has relaxed some rules for H-1B visas.

Washington:

The Trump administration has relaxed some rules for H-1B visas allowing visa holders to enter the US if they return to the same jobs they had before the visa ban.

The US Department of State advisory said dependents, or spouses and children, would also be allowed to travel with the visa holders.

“Travel by applicants seeking to resume ongoing employment in the United States in the same position with the same employer and visa classification,” the state department advisory said.

The US has also allowed travel by technical specialists, senior-level managers and other workers who hold H-1B visas, saying it is necessary to facilitate the “immediate and continued economic recovery of the United States”.

President Donald Trump had signed a proclamation on June 22 banning the entry of certain non-immigrants with H-1B and L1 visas until the end of the year to protect the US labour market following record unemployment rates because of the Covid19 pandemic.

The US tech industry, including Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, had backed a lawsuit against the move.

America has also allowed the travel of visa holders working as public health or healthcare professionals, or researchers as the country battles the raging pandemic.

“Travel supported by a request from a US government agency or entity to meet critical US foreign policy objectives or to satisfy treaty or contractual obligations. This would include individuals, identified by the Department of Defense or another US government agency, performing research, providing IT support/services, or engaging other similar projects essential to a US government agency,” the advisory stated.

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County seeks grant for gravemarkers in township cemeteries | News, Sports, Jobs

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News Photo by Steve Schulwitz
Alpena County Veteran Affairs Director George Stevens shows what new gravemarkers and flags would look like if they are installed at cemeteries in county townships. The Veterans Affairs Office applied for a grant to purchase gravemarkers and flags for area veterans’ graves.

ALPENA — The Alpena County Veteran Affairs office is working to place gravemarkers and American flags at the graves of veterans around the county.

The office applied for a $7,600 grant from the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency for the project, county Veterans Service Officer Dan Perge said. The office also has $2,000 leftover from a prior project that it plans to contribute to the memorials in township cemeteries without their own veteran grave program.

“They will be used as a way to honor the veterans in the township cemeteries, and we should find out if we got the grant this week, I hope,” Perge said.

Alpena already honors veterans at the city-owned cemetery with gravemarkers and flags, but most townships have few memorials outside of what family or friends plant or place near the graves, Perge said.

If the office wins the grant, Perge will begin working with township officials to get an accurate count of how many veterans’ graves need markers.

“We haven’t quite got to that point, but we will be working with the townships to determine what we need to do and go over logistics like who will place them,” Perge said. “Right now, we’re just getting things going.”.

Veteran Affairs Director George Stevens said township graves contain the bodies of soldiers dating back to the Civil War and every war after, buried in cemeteries large and small around the county.

He said people enjoy walking through cemeteries and admiring the gravestones, learning about those who died. Adding the gravemarkers will add to that experience, Stevens said.

Tammy Bates, trustee in Green Township, where there are two cemeteries, Greely Cemetery and Spratt Cemetery, said the township is always looking for ways to improve its parks, cemeteries, and facilities, but it’s hard to do so with so little wiggle room in the budget.

“People take pride in their cemeteries, and this will help to make it look better, while honoring the veterans appropriately,” Bates said. “Right now, we have identified 63 veterans that we know of. We may inject some more help from people, because there could be some that we haven’t identified. We want to include everybody, if possible.”

Stevens said people always show up in large numbers for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, when there are special parades and ceremonies at Little Flander’s Field.

He said the Avenue of Flags set up along Washington Avenue by the Alpena Kiwanis Club and Alpena Booster Club is another example of how the community supports military heroes.

“Sometimes, you can drive or walk by Evergreen Cemetery and there are American flags as far as you can see, and it is just great,” he said. “The people in the area have always had a deep respect and appreciation for veterans, so we’ll see where this goes. We’ll know more about the grant soon.”

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