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State health department freezes coronavirus watch list, citing faulty data system that threw off crucial case metrics

California’s Department of Public Health has frozen adding and removing counties from its coronavirus watch list because of major technical errors in its collection of test results.

The predicament is leading the state to phase out its old test reporting system, called CalREDIE, and build a new system to receive daily COVID-19 test results from across the state to bring back essential figures that public health officials use to guide pandemic policies and resources.

“Our data system failed and that failure led to inaccurate case numbers and case positivity rates,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said during a press conference Friday, adding that fixing the glitches had been a top priority this week.

The garbled data caused an absence of accurate information counties need to properly deal with the pandemic at the local level.

Ghaly did say, despite the lack of specific figures, “case rates continue to follow the trend we see in hospitalizations, showing slight decreases.”

The database problems began July 25, when a server outage created a delay in testing lab records filtering into the state’s reporting system, Ghaly said, so a quick fix was done to allow records into the system faster.

“These technical changes were supposed to be temporary. However, they were not later disabled, causing further delays in our reporting of lab data and creating an extensive backlog,” he said.

At the same time, state health officials discovered they were not receiving data from one of the California’s largest commercial labs from July 31 to Tuesday, Aug. 4. Ghaly did not say if the lab serves a certain area of the state.

Ghaly said he learned of the magnitude of the data backlog Monday afternoon.

Small technical issues already have been fixed, he said, and the state is speeding up development of a new lab test reporting system.

Ghaly said testing data had evened out since Thursday and that over the weekend a backlog of up to 300,000 results of COVID-19 and other medical tests would be resolved, “giving us a better sense of the total number of tests that were delayed.”

Coronavirus case rates – the number of new cases by population over two weeks – are among a set of indicators drawn by the state health department that show how counties are performing during the pandemic and have directed decisions such as requiring several business sectors in more impacted counties to close their doors again.

Both case rates and testing positivity – it’s the share of positive tests out of all tests – are affected by how fast labs can report results to state and county health officials.

Since July 23, the state health department has stopped reporting hospital metrics, including new hospitalization rates and intensive care and ventilator availability, citing new federal reporting requirements from hospitals. The department’s website says this data will be updated once the transition is complete.

The lapse in data that has caused COVID-19 case rates to falsely plummet all over California nearly drove Orange County’s metrics below thresholds that would have knocked it off the state’s watch list.

Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County’s Health Care Agency director and acting health officer, said he first noticed an unexpected drop in test results and the resulting drag on case rates on July 23.

On Friday, Chau said the recent case rates posted to a Health Care Agency coronavirus tracking site – 104 cases per 100,000 residents on Friday – are not accurate because of the state database problems.

“The number that folks are seeing on our website, they are actually not updated numbers, so we don’t know what is our true updated case rate at this time,” he said.

Chau said local public health officials were anxious to see exactly how much higher Orange County’s case rate would rise once the 300,000 uncounted tests entered the state’s system. Orange County’s testing positivity rate, which also has dipped, is also affected by these technical issues.

The glitches has paused some reopening plans in Orange County.

County leaders this week said they would begin accepting applications from elementary schools that wish to resume in-person teaching this fall, but Health Care Agency officials said they won’t be considered until the test reporting problems are resolved and real case rates are known.

Orange County’s Health Care Agency and the state’s health department, on their websites, have shown case rates day-to-day since June. Case rates over time are not featured.

And test results can take days or weeks to be recorded, throwing case rates and other closely monitored data points out of focus.

For example, the county’s case rate calculated on July 23 was 246 cases per 100,000 residents. Hundreds of test results added since then give a clearer picture and a much higher rate for that date: now 302 cases per 100,000.

Testing positivity also rose in that time frame, hinting that negative swabs are reported faster than positive ones.

Source: Orange County Register

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