As many as 17,000 negative COVID-19 tests in Dane County were not entered into a data system because of a backlog, which could distort the daily percentage of positive cases for the state. The Jefferson County Health Department said in a press release over the weekend there is no backlog in the county. 

"Jefferson County Health Department has seen an average of 150-200 results reported a day, and that number continues to trend upwards. Even with those numbers rising, the health department has consistently processed all results, negative and positive, in under 24 hours for the entirety of the pandemic. An audit of the current tests to be processed shows all test results sent to the health department have been successfully processed within the 24 hour time frame," a press release said. 

Public Health Madison and Dane County said on their Facebook page Friday afternoon that the high percentage of positive rates were because of the backlog of entering negative test results. Each negative result has to be processed manually by a staff person.

“Our staff prioritizes processing positive results, and as the amount of testing has increased, we have had a backlog of negative tests to process. Positive tests are always immediately verified and processed, and delays in processing negative tests in our data system does not affect notification of test results. The only effect this backlog has had is on our percent positivity rate and daily test counts,” the county said on the site.

Dane County is now including negative test results that have not been entered into the system by a staff member and the 17,000 have now been included.

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, says the county admitted to backlogs of 10 days or more for reporting negative test results, while positive tests were entered in one to three days. That, in turn, has made the daily rate of those infected in the state higher than it should be, he said.

“DHS and local public health departments have been aware of the backlog in counting negative test results and have not been transparent with the public about the situation,” Nass said. “By rapidly including the positive test results but delaying thousands of negative test results from being included in the data released to the public, it provides a seriously incomplete picture of Covid-19 in Wisconsin.”

Nass did not say if they have found other counties that have a backlog.

Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Thursday in a briefing with reporters that “many local health departments are experiencing delays.”

She said people should look at the seven-day average of the percentage of positive cases to find the most accurate numbers.

In Jefferson County, there is no backlog at Fort HealthCare in reporting negative and positive results, a spokesperson said Friday, July 24. The health system has administered about half of the 11,000 tests in the county.

Mike Mikalsen, a spokesman for Nass, said Friday, July 24, that they have been tracking COVID numbers in area counties for months.

“When we started analyzing and looking at various numbers things didn’t add up,” he said.

He said the numbers are a major impact in the fight against the virus. As they started looking at the backlog, they did think there was an impact on the daily percentage.

“They are not necessarily doing anything intentional. They focus on the positive,” he said of Dane County.

Mikalsen said Dane County admitted to the backlog on a blog and later on their Facebook page.

Mikalsen said the goal with this is to help look into any backlogs counties are having reporting the results that are posted daily on the DHS website.

The problem, Mikalsen said, is the data of the daily percentage of positive cases by the DHS is used by counties and states to make decisions. When New York put restrictions on people traveling there from Wisconsin, that was based on the percentage of positive daily rates. Anything higher than 10 percent during a 14-day period, travel restrictions were put in place for that state.

Mikalsen said Illinois has a similar restriction that is a 15 percent daily total of positive test results. Something Wisconsin has not hit yet.

If people travel to a state with restrictions, they are told to quarantine for 14 days.

Nass has been pursuing the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to publicly acknowledge there is a backlog in local health departments entering negative test result numbers.

Chris Barron, executive director of population health and clinical services at Fort HealthCare, said there is no backlog of reporting results the hospital has administered in Jefferson County.

“Fort HealthCare is experienced in collecting, processing and reporting test results related to communicable diseases. Using existing processes for other communicable diseases, advanced electronic health records and disease surveillance systems, Fort HealthCare reports both positive and negative COVID-19 swab test results to WEDSS (Wisconsin Electronic Disease Surveillance System) within 24 hours of the receipt of the result,” Barron said.

The majority of COVID-19 swab tests collected at Fort HealthCare are processed by an external laboratory which electronically transmits those results to Fort HealthCare and Fort HealthCare electronically batch processes those results to WEDSS daily, he said.

“We want to assure the community there is no excessive delay with the sharing of results of COVID-19 swab tests collected at Fort HealthCare with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services,” he said.

In Jefferson County, 461 people have tested positive for COVID-19, and there have been more than 10,000 negative tests. In the state, 46,917 people have tested postive for the virus. And more than a half million tests have been completed.

Since the start of the pandemic, the state has increased testing significantly, with testing sites run by the Wisconsin National Guard in places like Madison and Milwaukee. And other sites for a week, like the one in Jefferson County Fair Park that ran last week.

Dane County is the first county to admit they have a backlog of negative test results being entered, Mikalsen said.

“We’re not being critical that there is a backlog, but if you don’t tell people there is a backlog and people are making decisions off this, that’s the problem here,” Mikalsen said.

“What Senator Nass is pointing out is that will make us look higher (percentage-wise). That number would clearly be lower if all the negatives were entered.”

Percentages have varied this week in the state, with the DHS reporting a high of 10.3 percent on Sunday and 4.8 percent on Wednesday. Nearly double the number of negative tests were reported on Wednesday than Sunday.

“The public and media have been given an incomplete picture of Covid-19 testing results for several weeks,” Nass said. “DHS and local public health officials have been telling us that the increases in Covid-19 positives are not simply because of more testing. We now know those statements were inaccurate and misleading due to the significant backlog in processing negative results.”

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