JONESBORO — Health officials worldwide and locally have been keeping an eye on a statistic that’s hard for the common person to understand.

But based on the statistics for Northeast Arkansas, local residents apparently need to understand it.

It’s called the 14-day moving average of percent positivity, and Craighead and adjacent counties have some of the highest percentages in Arkansas. In fact, Lawrence County was at the top of the list, according to numbers released Friday, at 21.8%.

The World Health Organization (WHO) does not recommend communities fully reopen schools, businesses and other activities until the percent positivity rate is 5 percent or less for at least 14 days.

Dr. Shane Speights, dean of NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University, said the goal of the White House Coronavirus Task force is 10%.

Even with the more liberal goal of 10 percent, it would appear Northeast Arkansas still has a lot of work to do to reach that goal.

But Speights said interpreting the numbers can be confusing.

The rate of positivity is an important indicator because it can provide insights into whether a community is conducting enough testing to find cases, according to The Johns Hopkins University. If a community’s positivity is high, it suggests that that community may largely be testing the sickest patients and possibly missing milder or asymptomatic cases. A lower positivity may indicate that a community is including in its testing patients with milder or no symptoms, the university said in a report on testing.

As for the numbers associated with Northeast Arkansas, Speights said it’s likely a combination of factors.

“Laxity in adherence to social distancing, mask wearing, handwashing, etc., and not enough community-wide testing or tests just being conducted on sick people,” Speights said.

The Arkansas Department of Health has ramped up testing statewide, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson alluded to that while providing his daily report Friday.

“Yesterday we saw another new record in our testing efforts,” the governor said in the press release. “With over 15,000 total tests, we can see the results of our investment and commitment to grow Arkansas’ testing infrastructure. This weekend is critical as we continue to battle COVID-19. Remember to wear a mask, keep your distance, and wash your hands frequently.”

Speights told The Sun in an email many people don’t understand the reasoning for increased testing, “and we hear it a lot – ‘Increased testing means you’re going to find more positives, that’s why the numbers are up.’ While an increase in the amount of testing DOES mean that we will find more cases, it DOES NOT mean that the virus was just being passed around the community without consequence. It’s like saying that mass pregnancy testing results in more pregnancies. To that point, increased testing of COVID does not increase hospitalizations from COVID (which we are seeing record highs in). Hospitalizations for COVID are high because cases of COVID are high, but we don’t want to use hospitalization rate as our marker because that would mean we are waiting for people to get sick and hospitalized before we recognize there is a problem.”

Speights said there are three strategies involved in testing:

“We test sick people we think have COVID (diagnostic test); we test people who have been exposed to people that have COVID (screening test); and we test populations for people that might have COVID and don’t know it (surveillance testing).”

The combination of those strategies is why testing health officials urge as many people as possible to be tested, Speights said.

Craighead County has ranked high statewide in new virus cases in recent days.

While not naming the companies, a health department report showed two Jonesboro manufacturing companies had five or more active COVID-19 cases as of Thursday.

One had eight active cases. Three other patients had recovered. The second had five active cases, but 53 other people at the same plant had been infected earlier and recovered.