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 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. The health system has administered about half of the 11,000 tests in the county.
Mike Mikalsen, a spokesman for Nass, said Friday 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.
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 runs through Saturday.
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.
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.
Public Health Madison and Dane County issued a statement as it presented its weekly update Friday afternoon, noting that the numbers of new positive tests increased nonetheless.
“To be clear, percent positivity is just one metric we monitor and was not the reason for the new orders that have been issued in July. We issued orders with new restrictions effective 7/2/20 because from June 20, 2020 through June 26, 2020, 482 individuals tested positive for COVID-19, which was the highest of any seven day period. The number of cases increased by 45% in just one week which was the largest percent increase we had since the end of March. When the order for face coverings was issued on July 7, we had just again experienced the highest ever number of cases in 7 days: 780 cases from 6/27 to 7/3. Additionally, our lab timeliness and contact tracing metric turned red, and our community spread metric was red.”