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.

Public Health Madison and Dane County said on its Facebook page Friday, July 24, that the high percentage of positive rates were due to 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 now is including negative test results that have not been entered into the system by a staff member, and the 17,000 have been included.

The announcement came on the same day that state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said that Dane 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, 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 whether his office has found other counties that have a backlog. However, state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Thursday, July 23, 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.

Meanwhile, Mike Mikalsen, a spokesman for Nass, said the senator’s office has 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 officials admitted to the backlog on a blog and later on their Facebook page.

He added that 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. Travel restrictions were put in place for states when positive cases were higher than 10 percent during a 14-day period.

Mikalsen said Illinois has a similar restriction that is a 15% 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.

Dane County was the first county to admit to having 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 Sen. 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.”

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