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In a less entertaining way, I consider advanced mathematics in the same manner as professional athletics … which is to say, I’m not capable of either.

My limits in this former pursuit, even during my school years and academic requirements compelled me, went barely beyond algebraic.

The deeper dives into this, the work of those experts in applied and theoretical math, elude me, while I remain fascinated.

Very early in the pandemic, a mathematician named John Allen Paulos, a professor at Temple University, wrote a compelling piece about the risks of distorted numbers concerning the coronavirus.

For one thing, he noted that the drip-drip of daily reporting of numbers (deaths, confirmed infections) might serve the cause of transparency but lead to false impressions.

Assessments from longer time periods, a week or even a month, would prove more reliable, yet those do not serve the needs of people who want the information and want it now.

As a news person, I understand this reflex to put the statistics out as quickly as possible, a snapshot in time as opposed to a more thorough examination that might work for academic research.

But the professor’s point is well-made. Numbers go out into the world as gospel, fully scrubbed, yet they should be accompanied by cautions and details of nuance.

As it happens, COVID-19 remains a moving target, not wholly understood by even those most intimately fighting it.

That said, medical professionals generally believe the virus proves more lethal to people with certain health conditions. A chronic lung ailment might lead to death, and the coronavirus might have contributed, though no test might be applied.

How does that get listed among the keepers of vital statistics? Does it fog the numbers?

And some doctors believe that the broader shutdowns have kept people from seeking treatment for non-COVID health problems, leading to some deaths. If true, could one list those as pandemic-related?

Numbers have no official status with a virus. They give comfort or cause alarm for us humans. Even if their fidelity as pure entities in the math world gets tested by these odd times, they have utility.

In Missouri, they leave us to our comparisons, often done in less traumatic modeling and measurements, putting one place in competition with others. Populations, poverty rates, median incomes … all sorts of things get this scrutiny.

On Missouri’s COVID-19 Dashboard, a state clearinghouse for outbreak statistics, Buchanan County has an accustomed place in the top realm of coronavirus cases.

As of Monday afternoon, it ranked fifth behind St. Louis County, St. Louis city, Kansas City and St. Charles County in raw numbers.

The difference, in that “what’s-not-like-the-other” way, is that Buchanan resides outside the two major metropolitan areas of Missouri.

When compared to other outstate counties with populations of a larger size, the discrepancy looks more profound. On Monday, Buchanan County had 851 cases per 100,000 people, the apples-to-apples correlation.

Boone County (Columbia) had 107, Cape Girardeau County had 110, Cole County (Jefferson City) had 74, Greene County (Springfield) had 58 and Jasper County (Joplin) had 53.

Buchanan had more in common with other counties with meatpacking plants, Saline and Sullivan, of more modest size, on the comparable rankings.

Decisions follow such numbers, a nod to public health, another nod to economic survival. These numbers may not be perfect, but they inform and beat the guidance of gut instinct.

Ken Newton's column runs on Tuesday and Sunday. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.​