On Friday, California’s top health official was sent out by his boss to face the music.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, director of the state’s Health and Human Services Department, held a news conference and admitted that multiple errors on the state’s part had caused a backlog of 250,000-300,000 records in its case data reporting system. That system is used primarily to parse and distribute coronavirus data.
He apologized not just to the public but, obliquely, to his boss, Governor Gavin Newsom.
“We apologize,” Ghaly said on behalf of his staff. “You deserve better. The governor demands better.”
Newsom has not given one of his regular coronavirus new conferences since Monday. Nor has the governor, who is fond of saying “data is foundational” to his coronavirus decisions, commented on the reporting miscues.
But the state HHS director made it clear his boss was not pleased. “It’s a problem the governor demanded my team and I resolve,” he said.
Ghaly said a July 25 server outage prevented lab records from reaching the state system, which has the appropriately ironic name of CalREDIE. At that time, a workaround was created to allow records to flow in more quickly.
That workaround was supposed to be temporary. But someone somewhere forgot to switch the system back. That mistake caused further data delays and created a backlog. Ghaly said the workaround had since been reversed.
On top of that, the state failed to renew a certification with an intermediary that feeds results from labs like Quest directly into CalREDIE. Because of that bureaucratic error, some test results from Quest were held back between July 31-August 4. Ghaly said the certificate has now been renewed.
“I became aware of the magnitude of the data backlog in the late afternoon on Monday,” said Ghaly, “and alerted the Governor and his staff shortly thereafter.”
The state’s backlog of 250,000-300,000 records will be resolved in next 24-48 hours, he said. The test results will be added to the case totals for the days on which they would have originally reported.
The backlogged results are not all “unique records.” Some may be duplicates or re-tests. CalREDIE also carries reports for other diseases in the state.
“The CalReady system was not built this volume of data,” Ghaly said, before promising that extra servers redundancies had been added to bolster it. He also said the state was “accelerating development of a new system.”
The director said that the errors only impacted daily case numbers, not the reporting on deaths, hospitalizations or ICU patients.
Furthermore, no changes to the state’s policies were based on the erroneous data, maintained Ghaly. “We did not over the period of the last many days use the data monitoring list to create any closures or any policy decisions.”
That’s an odd assertion given that Governor Newsom announced he would be, on Friday, releasing his guidelines for reopening California colleges.
If true, that would mean Newsom and his team generated those guidelines based on weeks-old data used to create the monitoring list. At last count, that list encompasses counties that make up over 70 percent of the state’s population.
Asked who knew what when, Ghaly recounted the above timeline relating to himself and Newsom and then added, “We are aware that individuals…were knowledgeable of some of these challenges.”
“The governor has directed a full investigation of what happened,” he said. “And we will hold people accountable.”
Watch Ghaly’s presentation below.
On Friday, the state reported 142 deaths over the past 24 hours related to coronavirus, bringing the total to 10,011. The number of new daily cases was 8,436, for a total of 538,416. Reported hospitalizations and COVID-related ICU stays continued to drop, which is curious given the still-high — and potentially much higher, given the undercount — numbers of new cases being reported and the record-breaking numbers of lives being lost to the virus.
While state leadership said the data failure only impacted daily case reporting for a few days or weeks, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said on Thursday that the state had told him that the problems extended far beyond that window.
“We don’t believe that it’s something that just happened in the last two or three weeks,” said Garcetti. “The state has told us that these reporting problems may have been throughout.”
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