LOS ANGELES (CBS SF/AP) — A technical problem created a lag in California’s tally of coronavirus test results, casting doubt on the accuracy of recent data and hindering efforts to track the spread, the state’s top health official said Tuesday. 

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said California recently stopped receiving a full count of tests conducted, or positive results, through electronic lab reports due to an unresolved issue he did not describe. The state’s data page now carries a disclaimer saying the numbers “represent an underreporting of actual positive cases” per day. 

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“We’ve discovered some discrepancies and we’re working hard to reach out to the labs to get accurate information in a manual process,” said Dr. Ghaly.

The revelation comes as the state showed improvements in the infection rate and number of positive cases. The latest daily tally posted Tuesday showed 4,526 new confirmed positives, the lowest total in more than six weeks and a precipitous drop from the record nearly 13,000 reported two weeks ago. After the issue came to light, county health officials posted notices on their sites advising of the lag and that a drop in cases might not paint a full picture. 

Wendy Hetherington, Riverside County’s chief of epidemiology and program evaluation, said she believes hundreds of cases a day haven’t been reported in her county. The under-count impedes the ability to find newly infected individuals and quickly inform those who have been in close contact with them so they can self-quarantine.

“We’re delaying case investigations. We’re delaying follow up,” she said, adding: “We can’t tell how well we’re doing until this issue is resolved.” 

Even with the under-reporting of cases, California has recorded more positive tests than any other state, about 520,000. 

UCSF infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Chin-Hong says despite the state’s discrepancies, it’s important to focus on the long-term trend.

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“I do believe that we are seeing a decline in overall cases in the country,” he said. “Even Governor Newsom said don’t look at this one week per se, but we’re hopefully thinking that this will be a trend.”

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave his most optimistic report on the state’s virus efforts since a second surge of cases in early June. He noted daily cases had dropped by an average of 2,200 in the last week and the infection rate of 6.1% was significantly lower than the nearly 8% recorded last month. 

Dr. Mark Ghaly

Dr. Mark Ghaly speaking at a press conference on May 7, 2020 (CBS SF)

Ghaly acknowledged the rate Newsom highlighted was based on incomplete data and that missing data is being inputted manually. He stressed that looking at one- and two-week trends can help account for missing data from individual days. 

Ghaly said hospitalization data — which doesn’t run through the same troubled system — saw signs of improvement in recent days. The latest count Tuesday showed 6,302 people were hospitalized, a 12% drop from the high recorded in July. Deaths have now topped 9,500.


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