“Germany’s daily coronavirus cases nearly TRIPLE – states bring back tougher measures” screamed The Express last night. Even some normally level headed friends of mine had fallen for it and shared the piece on Facebook. As I have been in Berlin throughout the lockdown, and follow the news here pretty closely, even a rough skim of the piece revealed serious shortcomings with it.
In this blog post I am going to take it apart, piece by piece. Not because this is going to convince anyone who reads The Express to change their mind, but as a kind of dissection of how fake news is created, how stitching together half truths leaves the reader with a completely wrong impression.
Let’s start with the title: “Germany’s daily coronavirus cases nearly TRIPLE – states bring back tougher measures”. This neatly combines two essentially separate aspects of the story, and by putting them together lodges an association in the reader’s mind. The “tougher measures” part I will explain later on, as there is more (erroneous) detail about that in the piece.
Let’s start with the “nearly TRIPLE” – that refers to the daily sums of new infections, as reported by the Robert Koch Institut, and relates to the statistics for 12 May. The full table can be found in this PDF. There were 933 new cases on Tuesday 12 May. The day before, Monday 11 May, there were 357 – PDF here. If 2.6x is “nearly triple” then you get your headline.
But there is a problem. A pretty major problem. Below the table for 11 May, RKI states (my translation):
*A district in Baden-Württemberg submitted 148 fewer cases than the previous day. The cause is currently being clarified.
And on 12 May (my translation):
* From a district in Baden-Württemberg, the 148 cases that had been less transmitted the day before yesterday were corrected and retransmitted yesterday. The data from Hamburg have been revalidated, so that 180 more cases are counted compared to yesterday, but which also have reporting data that dates back a long time. Individual cases have been corrected in Schleswig-Holstein, so 1 case less is reported compared to yesterday.
So if you take just the Baden-Württemberg figures, ignoring Hamburg for a moment, and re-attribute those to the previous day, you get 505 11 May and 785 on 12 May. That is not even a doubling, let alone a tripling. If you then additionally remove the 180 from Hamburg, and the 1 from Schleswig Holstein that are attributable to counting changes, you get 606 – about a 20% increase.
So if you look at the numbers, they did indeed almost triple – but because of statistical readjustments, not because of a spike in cases.
For comparison there were 667 new cases Sunday 10 May, 1251 Saturday 9 May, 1209 Friday 8 May, 1284 Thursday 7 May (all stats from RKI).
The byline of the piece is similar in style: “CORONAVIRUS cases in Germany have almost trebled in the past 24 hours sparking fears of a second wave of COVID-19 infections.” Yes there are fears in Germany about a second wave – those are not new – but the idea that those are sparked by this one day of statistics is not the case if you read the German news, and drawing that conclusion from these stats would be one hell of a stretch.
So let’s go through the piece paragraph by paragraph.
Health authorities in Germany have reported more than 900 new cases of the deadly coronavirus less than a week after lockdown restrictions were relaxed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Robert Koch Institute for public health and disease control has reported 933 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday – an increase from just 357 on Monday.
Yes that is repeating the headline. Cases did almost triple – but because of a statistical readjustment. And yes, lockdown did begin to be eased a week or so ago. We cannot determine if there is any connection, because the tripling… is because of statistical readjustment.
According to the Institute the infection rate – the so-called “R” rate – has been above one for the past three days. […] The Institute for public health estimated the “R” rate was at 1.07 on Monday and 1.13 on Sunday. […] Today, the R rate once again dipped just below one with an estimated value of 0.94, but the latest spike in cases will worry some. Despite the rise in the rate in recent days, the Robert Koch Institute said: “So far, we do not expect a renewed rising trend.”
So the very institute whose stats you use for your headline says the opposite of your headline. And R is below 1, having been just above 1 for three days. There is no “latest spike in cases” as I have repeatedly stated above.
Last Thursday Ms Merkel outlined a scenario at which the country would need to apply an “emergency brake” and re-impose restrictions.
The lockdown measures would be introduced again if a second wave of new infections were reported at a rate of 50 per 100,000 people.
Since Ms Merkel’s announcement, however, three districts across Germany have used the emergency measures to halt the virus.
The states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein were forced to re-introduce lockdown after outbreaks of coronavirus at meat processing plants.
One district in the state of Thuringia is also understood to have implemented the emergency measures after outbreaks in care homes.
Here we go again. Yes, there are new rules where lockdown can be reintroduced if – in a period of 7 days – there are more than 50 new infections detected per 100000 inhabitants in a county (a Kreis in German). That does not mean that the entire State (Land) reintroduces restrictions.
Also important is that the main slaughterhouse with an infection – Westfleisch in Coesfeld in Nordrhein Westfalen – was suffering from the outbreak before the new rules on infections per 100000 came into force – see this 9 days ago from the Allgemeine Zeitung in the region. Indeed the parts of Nordrhein Westfalen close to Westfleisch and one other slaughterhouse have not lifted previous restrictions, rather than lift them and reimpose them as The Express implies. The infection in Vion slaughterhouse in Bad Bramstedt (Kreis Segeberg) in Schleswig Holstein came later (see NDR here), and did push that county over the 50 per 100000 limit for new infections. There has been a problem in care homes in Thüringen, but that too was weeks ago.
The reaction in Germany to all of this? To ask why slaughterhouses are so badly impacted – see this from Stern for example. Part of the reason is that many workers in these places live in shared accommodation and that – plus the conditions in the plants themselves – seem to be prime means for the virus to spread.
The rest of the piece is not too controversial, and states what Merkel said on Monday. Whether this is as a response to R being above 1 then for 2 days we do not know, although The Express makes that connection – in terms of chronology that is correct, but whether that was Merkel’s motivation we do not know.
On Monday following reports the infection rate was rising again Ms Merkel appealed to Germans to stick to social-distancing rules.
The German Chancellor insisted the country was moving on the a new phase in the battle against COVID-19 but encouraged citizens to keep their distance and cover their mouths and noses.
Ms Merkel said: “It’s very important to me to again draw attention to the fact that we’re entering a new phase of the pandemic.
“That it will now be necessary, with all the easing of measures, to be sure that people stick to the basic rules i.e. keeping their distance, wearing mouth and nose protection and showing consideration for each other.”
So – in conclusion – the tripling that The Express reports is not a tripling. States are not reimposing restrictions, but a few counties are – where there are longer standing problems with slaughterhouses. And it is too early to know whether the easing of lockdown has anything to do with the changes in these numbers.