California Coronavirus Update: Top Health Official Reveals State Has Been Underreporting New COVID-19 Cases; County Numbers Also Have “Discrepancies”

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly
Dr. Mark Ghaly State of California/Twitter

On Tuesday, an unusual message was posted on the California state COVID-19 dashboard. It read, “Due to the issues with the state’s electronic laboratory system, these data represent an underreporting of actual positive cases in one single day.” There was no further information or clarification.

A few hours later, the state’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, shed some light on the issue.

“Over the past few days — the state system — we’ve discovered some discrepancies,” said Ghaly.

“We’re working hard and immediately to reach out to the labs that we work with to get accurate information in a manual process so that we can feed that to our county partners,” he added, “so that we can validate and make sure that our numbers are accurate.

“And of course, [we’re] working hard on the technology side across state government to make sure that the systems are robust and capable of accepting all of this information.”

California’s daily case count numbers have plummeted from a recent high of 9,032 on August 1 — the day local officials were informed of the issue — to 5,719 on Monday.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom did not reveal the data issues at his Monday news conference, he did repeatedly warn Californians not to let their guard down.

“The overall trend…is showing a decrease from where we were over a week ago,” said Newsom. “But one week does not make the kind of trend that gives us confidence to generate headlines. We are looking forward to that and need to see another few weeks of this kind of data to come in to feel more confident about where we are as a state.”

He also issued what now seems like a prescient warning saying, “This virus is not going away. It’s not just going to take Labor Day off. It’s not going to take Halloween off. Or the holidays off.”

“Until we have quality therapeutics, until we have a vaccine, we are going to be living with this virus,” predicted Newsom.

And it’s not just the state numbers that have been impacted.

“Many counties depend upon the state’s information to keep their own data up to date,” said Ghaly. “Many public health officials and public health offices that depend on the state’s data over the past few days have seen a drop in case numbers. We’ve been in communication with them about what these discrepancies are. They’re concerned, as we are. There is no doubt that, their ability to address in a specific way contact tracing and case investigation” has been impacted over the past few days.

Los Angeles County issued this statement late Tuesday:

The State has determined under reporting of COVID-19 cases due to technology issues with the electronic laboratory system (ELR). Public Health learned of new issues with the State ELR feed on an emergency call convened by the State last night. This issue has undercounted the County’s positive cases and affects the number of COVID-19 cases reported each day and our contact tracing efforts. However, there should not be delays in patients being notified of lab results, as laboratories continue to report tests results directly to providers and hospitals.

L.A. County public health officials also said they have flagged irregularities to the state for the past 2 weeks and are now pursuing “an independent strategy to obtain accurate data.”

Los Angeles County has seen a steep drop in daily cases recently.

On July 31, the county reported 2,651 new infections. That was a sharp drop from the all-time high in new daily cases, reported just two days before of 4,825.

Riverside County acknowledged the issue in a statement on Monday, which read in part:

Electronic laboratory reporting is not being submitted to CalREDIE’s system in a real-time manner. Riverside County’s positive cases in recent days may appear that the numbers are holding steady or flattening, but that’s simply not true, said Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari.

“This is an integration, technical issue,” Saruwatari said. “Simply put, there is a significant lag in how the information is being fed into the system. We’re anticipating significant increases in case reporting this week.”

The notice went on to say that local health officials had first been made aware of the reporting issue on Friday.

Two other counties, Sacramento and Placer, posted disclaimers to their COVID-19 dashboards. Placer added a message Monday and Sacramento added a warning early Tuesday, amid a few. Those counties had recently seen lower numbers.

A warning statement on Placer’s data dashboard reads, “Please note that CalREDIE, the statewide electronic disease reporting system, is experiencing serious unresolved processing delays.

“As such, new cases presented here are likely an underestimate of true incident cases being reported. This impacts many of our statistics, including case rates and percent increase estimates.”

These data challenges on case numbers do not have overlap with hospitalization and ICU data, he said.

The state reported 4,526 new cases on Tuesday and 113 new deaths. Hospitalizations were down 1.5 percent and COVID-related ICU patients dropped .9 percent.

Watch Ghaly’s presentation below.

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