Numbers Don’t Lie

Angie Szumlinski News, Studies

In a recent study published in JAMA, estimates of the proportion of persons with detectable SARS-CoV-2 antibodies ranged from 1.0% in the San Francisco Bay area (collected April 23-27) to 6.9% of persons in New York City (collected March 23-April1). For most sites, it is likely that greater than 10 times more SARS-CoV-2 infections occurred than the number of reported COVID-19 cases; most persons in each site, however, likely had no detectable SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.

What does all of this mean? It can be confusing and often takes a talented researcher to adequately explain it but let’s give it a try. The outcome of the study suggests that at the time of specimen collection (March to early May 2020), a large majority of persons in 10 diverse geographic sites in the US had not been infected with SARS-CoV-2. The estimated number of infections, however, was much greater than the number of reported cases in all sites. This finding may reflect persons who had mild or no illness or who did not seek medical care or undergo testing but who still may have contributed to ongoing virus transmission in the population.

Because people often do not know if they are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the public should continue to take steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing cloth face coverings when outside the home, remaining 6 feet apart from other people, washing hands frequently and staying home when sick.