The one data point that suggests both NY and CA are getting COVID control

Good news about the coronavirus is in short supply. The United States’ confirmed case count isapproaching half a million— more than triple any other country’s. The U.S. will soon lead the world in COVID-19 deaths as well. Roughly 95 percent of Americans are living under lockdown orders. No one seems to haveany real sense of how or when this will end.

But look a little harder and you can just start to discern a faint light at the end of this very dark tunnel. You just have to know where to look.

Ignore the skyrocketing case count, or at least take it with a grain of salt. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silverhas explained, the number of positive tests reported in any given city, state or country is highly dependent on the number of tests conducted there — which differs wildly from place to place over time. Death tolls are more useful for comparing how the epidemic is evolving in different locales. But because it typically takes weeks for someone with COVID-19 to die, they’re also lagging indicators that tell you less about where on its epidemic trajectory the virus is now than where it was back then. 

The number you really want to focus on is hospitalizations. And if it’s good news you’re after, pay particular attention to what’s happening in two key states: New York and California.

Until very recently, nationwide data about how many COVID-19 patients are currently receiving treatment in hospitals was hard to come by. It’sstill incomplete and inconsistent. But on April 7, researchers at the University of Minnesotalaunched the U.S. COVID-19 Hospitalization Tracking Project,which is just what it sounds like: the first effort to capture, track, visualize and compare daily data on the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations from the 37 state departments of health that are reporting this information (so far).

The reason this information is so valuable is simple. Because hospitalization typically occurs a week or so after infection, it’s less of a lagging indicator than the death count (which trails by two to two and a half weeks) and more directly tied to the trajectory of the epidemic than the testing-dependent case count. It’s also a measure of the most pressing public health concern of all: how close we are to exceeding the capacity of our hospital system, which can make COVID-19 much deadlier than it would otherwise be.