Forget advanced algebra, COVID math is really hard

The Backroom is a column by the staff of the Long Beach Post with notes and analysis, along with bloops and blunders, from the city’s political scene. It runs every Thursday. To contact us, email [email protected]. For questions or concerns, please contact Managing Editor Melissa Evans: [email protected] or 562-437-5814. 

It occurs to us that data is like an out-of-control garden hose, whipping around the yard like an injured and angry snake, totally chaotic and likely to blast you in the face as you rush toward it in an attempt to regain control so you can go back to the task of watering the azaleas.

Even at the dawn of the COVID era there’s been a social media backlash from people—and not just “little people,” but business owners and termed-out politicians—thinking the reaction to the virus has been crazily overblown and is likely an attempt to destroy small businesses in California or perhaps to make President Trump look bad.

The city has had a difficult time grappling with the gathering and dissemination of solid and reliable information about the coronavirus’ effect on Long Beach, and as a result, it’s given critics some legitimate fodder.

For instance, early on, we were getting wildly fluctuating reports of how many people are in the hospital, with the number varying by as much as 20 or 30 people. Why, we wondered, couldn’t the hospitals simply count the people being treated for COVID. We know math is hard, but counting is on the easy end of the scale of difficulty.

As it eventually was discovered, the hospitalization rate—one of the previous indicators used by the state to determine when counties could reopen—was not what we thought: It was the number of Long Beach residents in a hospital—in any hospital, anywhere—not the number of beds occupied locally. Calculated that way, it was a meaningless statistic. Why in the world would we care whether a local resident was in the hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi?

Then, there’s the issue of calculating the positivity rate, or the number of positive test results compared to the overall number of tests. Long Beach was hovering around 7.3% and then soared downward (the right direction) to 4.6%. Why, you might wonder? Turns out some private labs were reporting the number of positive cases, but were leaving out the negative cases, which, if your math skills are just slightly above the “counting” level, you’ll realize this makes for a higher positivity rate.

The Long Beach Health Department, not wishing to be accused of holding back positive results, counted them. This week, however, the state offered some guidance on that issue, which included leaving out this flawed data.

We don’t necessarily begrudge the health department for tabulating the positivity rate that way, but an explanation of the math would have helped mollify critics, who are already this week counting this as evidence to support their conspiracy theories.

Unhappily for those who think Gov. Newsom won’t be satisfied until he’s crushed the dreams of every business owner in the state, Long Beach’s positive cases per 100,000 residents remains at 9.4, higher than the 4-7 that the state wants before advancing to the next level of openings.

Nevertheless the skeptics have a point. People’s livelihoods are at stake. And they depend on the data. It’s crucial to get it right, even though this whole COVID mess has been about as easy as teaching 34 first-graders how to mute themselves on Zoom.

COVID is still a perilous disease and it won’t go away by people yelling at it. Until we return to any kind of normalcy, mix a pitcher of gimlets in your own home, and do some jumping jacks in the garage.

Survey says 

The City Council, still haggling over cuts to police and other services, did not pass a budget this week. But in the meantime, they did get a summer’s worth of reading material from a city survey on residents’ budget priorities that last year garnered 330 responses—and this year received a monstrous pile of 4,710 responses. With COVID shutting things down, it seems people have more time to devote to survey responses.

A 148-page memo to the council summarizes the results, and includes every comment from those who filled out the survey.

Some of the feedback was vague: “Make the city nice again” (just nice, though—it would be greedy to wish for GREAT).

Some complimentary: “Doing a great job. Thanks.”

Some with a Buddhist bent: “Karma is a bitch.”

The comments were often a greatest-hits list of gripes: Rainbow crosswalks, lack of parking, affordable housing, fireworks and the homeless (ranging from the charitable “please help them” to the pitiless SHIP THEM OFF TO A REMOTE ISLAND).

But the most frequent and uppercase comments related to police—with the “defund” camp appearing to slightly edge out the “funders.” (Our favorite: “Defund the police. Add compost pick up.”)

Another common area of feedback was the survey itself, which asked some very leading questions, like would you like to “maintain low crime rates”? This seems like a harmless query, but there’s much debate, especially now, about whether this can be achieved with fewer sworn police and more social services.

The city was open about the fact that this survey was not scientific. Residents could respond as many times as they wanted, and they did not try to get an even sample across the city (25% of District 3 residents responded compared to 2% of those in District 9).

But given the city’s multimillion-dollar deficit and weeks of protests calling for reductions to, or elimination of, police, we think this may have been a good year to spend some resources on an actual, scientific study to help inform decisions.

“Here’s a survey question for you,” one commenter wrote. “If you can’t even do something as simple as a survey correctly, how can we trust you to run a city larger than 40 state capitals?”

O’Donnell for mayor?

We haven’t gotten around yet to handicapping the potential contenders for the city’s next mayor. Others, however, are already busy scouting the field—and yes, everyone knows Robert Garcia still has two years left in his term, but many see him leaving sooner if Joe Biden wins the presidency in November.

A curious poll is making the rounds on social media, which pits three local politicians against each other: Suzie Price and Rex Richardson, both described blandly as “councilmembers,” and Patrick O’Donnell, “an Assemblymember and Classroom Teacher.”

Neither Price (a deputy district attorney) nor Richardson (who works in public affairs) knew the source of the poll, but noted the job descriptions.

O’Donnell, curiously, didn’t get back to us.

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