State: Coronavirus cases undercounted due to backlog

Case surge is causing a backlog of data

The state of Alaska has been under-reporting the number of active daily cases in recent weeks as the number of cases exceeds public health officials’ ability to immediately report individual cases, the Department of Health and Social Service said Friday in its weekly COVID-19 report.

“Those numbers should definitely be higher than they are,” Louisa Castrodale, epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health said Friday during a news conference, attributing the backlog to insufficient staffing.

Cases diagnosed in recent weeks exceeded the ability of public health to immediately report individual cases, the DHSS report said. Cases reported this week are an underestimate of true case numbers, according to the report.

A private lab contracted with the state to process COVID-19 test samples hadn’t reported results for four weeks leading up to Nov. 25, DHSS said in the report, “resulting in significant underestimates in case rates.”

The backlog of data reported 357 cases in Anchorage and 880 cases in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which will be reflected on the state’s coronavirus dashboard in the coming days.

The state's projected epidemic curve on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, according to Department of Health and Social Services data. (Courtesy photo / Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

The recent surge in cases coupled with limited personnel has led to a backlog in data entry and public health workers aren’t able to input the same amount of data as they were at the beginning of the pandemic, said Megan Tompkins with the Alaska Division of Public Health. Because of the backlog, state officials said they wanted to remove certain data sets from the state’s website rather than give inaccurate or outdated information, she said.

Though the number of active and recovered cases is no longer being reported, those numbers are based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on positive test dates, Zink said, and weren’t very useful to public health officials. The state’s data website has a section showing Alaska’s cases by onset date, she said, which is a useful tool in understanding the status of COVID-19 in a community.

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However, because tests are always being conducted and new results being reported back, the most recent cases on the onset-date data table will always be lower than the actual number, Zink said.

Division of Public Health director Heidi Hedberg said the division is looking for data technicians to help with the backlog but hadn’t been able to find qualified individuals. The position is full-time and Hedberg called the salary “competitive.”

The state’s health department said in it’s its weekly report said hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to rise and hospital capacity and staffing have become a significant concern. Testing is not keeping up with new cases, the report said.

Friday DHSS announced 663 new cases and four new deaths, bringing the state’s total of COVID-19-related deaths to 118. The City and Borough of Juneau will update its coronavirus data Monday, Nov. 30.

Nearly 4,000 cases among Alaskans were reported last week, reflecting continued high community transmission throughout much of Alaska, DHSS reported, but noted that some areas, including Juneau, have seen a decline in cases.

Juneau remains in the high alert level by both state and local metrics, and DHSS showed Juneau as having 25 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day window.

DHSS said in the report it doesn’t know whether Juneau’s decline primarily reflects a true decline in community transmission levels, a decline in testing, a lag in reporting positive cases or a combination of all three, the positivity rate in each region can help estimate the adequacy of testing.

All areas of Southeast Alaska have seen lower positivity rates than other parts of the state and under-testing was less of a concern there, according to DHSS weekly report.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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