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Serious breakdown in California systems cause inaccurate coronavirus numbers

Colleen Shalby, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- A breakdown in the electronic collection of coronavirus test data is hampering California's pandemic response, with some public health officials resorting to counting results by hand and a growing number of counties warning the public that statistics provided by the state on infection rates are unreliable.

The ongoing technical problems with the electronic system for gathering and analyzing COVID-19 infection rates affects the state's ability to track the spread of the virus and could be resulting in significant undercounts of infections across the state.

That was on vivid display Tuesday when the state's top public health official acknowledged that Gov. Gavin Newsom had inadvertently provided flawed information on Monday that showed a steep decline -- 21.2% -- in the state's seven-day average for infections.

State officials have said they don't know how long and to what extent the problems have existed in the state's CalREDIE electronic system, which collects information from laboratories and feeds it to state and local health departments. Officials have said it is unknown when the system will be running again, and did not provide additional details on Wednesday.

The accurate collection of test result data is crucial for public health officials in guiding their pandemic response and for projecting likely transmission rates and assisting contact tracing efforts. Inaccurate data could misshape the public's perception of the state of the pandemic, say experts.

"The information you're giving to the public over the last few days gives people the sense that we are doing better, and that they can relax. That might not be true," said Dr. Bob Kocher, a former member of Newsom's testing task force who worked as a White House health care official during the Obama administration.


"We reported to the public that they went from 10,000 to 5,000 a day. If you're looking at the data, you think we're doing better. You might be less vigilant; you might take more chances. You might think it's less active in your area," he said.

Data analysis of test results in recent days has deteriorated to the point that the state health department is implementing manual processes to retrieve the information. Several counties have added a note to their COVID-19 dashboards, warning that the numbers may not be true indicators of the coronavirus' full impact. And in Los Angeles County, where officials on Wednesday reported 68 additional COVID-19-related deaths and 2,347 cases, health officials are working to contact at least 81 laboratories to obtain test results since July 26 in order to determine an accurate case count.

The snafus recall similar problems that plagued the response in the early weeks of the pandemic. Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said in a news conference Wednesday that the flawed data has officials "back to feeling blind."

"We don't know how the epidemic is trending," she said. "This lack of data doesn't let us know."


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