A major COVID-19 data glitch in California means counties don’t know how many residents have tested positive in recent days, suddenly making it hard to gauge their success in battling the coronavirus.
The computer problem, which is blocking case data from getting to the state and to counties, is inhibiting local officials from tracking infection spread and could stall Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to let some elementary schools reopen.
While the problem persists, the state has stopped adding and removing counties from its monitoring list, which determines which businesses can be open, California Department of Public Health spokeswoman Ali Bay said.
The glitch also means local health departments can’t notify everyone who tests positive about services that might be available, such as free hotel rooms for quarantining, said Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California. Counties rely on the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange, or CalREDIE, to determine how many cases they have and to contact infected people.
“We’re not really sure of our case rate until this gets fixed. We don’t know how many people have tested positive,” DeBurgh said. “That means the local health department can’t call them and begin the contact tracing process or offer them services.”
Some test result data labs send to the state’s disease information database isn’t getting through, DeBurgh said. It’s unclear what’s causing the problem, how long it’s been happening or how much data isn’t making it to the state, she said.
But it is clear counties are not receiving complete data, which prevents them from tracking down close contacts of every infected person and telling them to quarantine, a process known as contact tracing that’s essential to the state’s coronavirus response. The problem appears to be affecting the state’s data for all counties, DeBurgh said.
In Sacramento, the problem also prevents officials from knowing if elementary schools can apply for a waiver to reopen classrooms. The Newsom administration announced Monday that counties with fewer than 200 infections per 100,000 residents can apply for waivers to reopen classrooms for kindergarten through sixth grade.
With incomplete numbers, Sacramento officials don’t know if they qualify, county spokeswoman Brenda Bongiorno said.
Contact tracing was already impeded by limited staff, spiking case rates and testing backlogs. To compensate for diminished contact tracing, Sacramento has already asked health care providers to tell people who test positive to isolate and to tell their close contacts to quarantine.
The data problem is also hamstringing officials in San Joaquin County, among the hardest hit in the state.
Newsom last week announced he is sending strike teams to the county and other parts of the Central Valley to help fight the virus. While the CalREDIE problem prohibits a full accounting of the challenge the county faces, the county health chief says hospital numbers show the virus has not abated.
“Without knowing our true case counts and positivity rate, we are unable to determine if our county is making progress in our fight against COVID-19,” Dr. Maggie Park, San Joaquin County Public Health Officer, said in a written statement. “We’re not able to prioritize our more critical cases and start case disease investigations and contact tracing in a timely manner. We do have accurate reporting from our hospitals, and we know that, unfortunately, we remain over capacity in our ICUs.”
Counties were told about the issue in a Monday evening call, DeBurgh said.
Since then, Dr. Olivia Kasirye, Sacramento County health officer, said the state has explained very little about the problem.
“All we are told is it is a very high priority and they have a team working on it,” she said. “They sent a request to labs to send us information in a spreadsheet. We don’t know how that is gong to work out.”
Counties suspect the problem it may have started as early as July 25, when some began noticing unusually low case counts, and may affect as much as half of data being reported, she said.
In Stanislaus County, Tuesday’s coronavirus dashboard update showed 31 new cases out of 106 tests. That represents a dramatic drop from the second half of July, when daily tests of more than 1,000 were common.
Madera County Public Health Director Sara Bosse said her office is using data directly from labs, as well as the limited data from the state, for contact tracing.
The state is working “around the clock” to fix the problem, but doesn’t yet know when it will be resolved, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Tuesday.
In the meantime, the state is telling labs to send data directly to counties in digital spreadsheets.
Newsom announced Monday that California’s COVID-19 numbers were trending down. The overall case rates he cited have since been called into question because of the data problem, but officials say that hospitalization and ICU rates he cited are indeed decreasing, as those numbers are not affected by the computer issue.
The California Department of Public Health did not answer questions about the cause and extent of the problem or efforts by labs to send data directly to counties.
“Our team, in collaboration with the California Department of Technology, continues to work around the clock to address the underreporting issue with our electronic laboratory reporting system,” Bay, the Department of Public Health spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “As soon as we have additional updates to provide, we will let you know.”
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