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Why reporting on “recovered” Covid-19 cases is tricky in Brazil

. Apr 23, 2020
recovered covid-19 patients

The Brazilian Health Ministry has promoted one noteworthy change in their disclosure of Covid-19 data: the inclusion of numbers of “recovered” patients. However, we at The Brazilian Report have not used this indicator in our monitoring, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the figure is not divided by municipality. From the beginning of the pandemic, we have focused on data that is available for all cities. Secondly, we do not know exactly what this number represents, and there is a large chance that different states are interpreting “recovery” in different ways. Different testing methods, for instance, could lead to different numbers of recovered patients. States that assign their testing kits to critically ill patients will have higher death rates, for example. In some states, such as Pernambuco, the number of confirmed cases grew so much throughout April that it is on the verge of collapse. But this happens because the state is testing more, especially its healthcare professionals. 

Thirdly, “recovered” could mean many different things. There is a disparity between being released from intensive care and having a patient showing mild symptoms and recovering at home. What would be useful is to see the number of people who were hospitalized and left intensive care in comparison to those who went into intensive care and died. This way we would be comparing similar statistics.

There is another layer of recovery that has to do with developing immunity and stopping transmission. In China, people who were considered to be recovered continued to transmit the virus for up to two weeks afterward. Furthermore, 14 percent of those previously infected in China tested positive for a second time. What is the immunity rate in Brazil? What share of those who have allegedly recovered are testing positive again? How many are recovering and continue to transmit the virus?

The number of recovered patients can mean so many things, and at the same time mean nothing if we look at the big picture. The situation of data in Brazil is disappointing, in large part due to the challenges the Health Ministry faces in standardizing information. That does not mean that these statistics are irrelevant, just that they need to be contextualized.

The data reflects what we know about Covid-19 in Brazil — and that is simply a share of what it actually represents. We do not know exactly how much of the whole it represents, and maybe we never will. The most we can do with this information is try to extract the most out of what we do know in the most unambiguous and granular way.

 
Marcelo Soares

Marcelo Soares is a Brazilian journalist specializing in data journalism and reader engagement.

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