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State COVID-19 data impacted by testing backlogs at the local level
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State COVID-19 data impacted by testing backlogs at the local level

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Delays in reported COVID-19 test results from local health officials could skew daily coronavirus data provided by the state Department of Health Services, officials said this week.

On Thursday, DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said the state department and local jurisdictions have prioritized positive cases of COVID-19 — which have broken daily records multiple times this month — so health officials can move quickly to contact trace and try to control the spread of the virus.

“What we have been seeing in a number of local jurisdictions who are seeing surges right now is that, as they prioritize those positive cases, the negative cases are dragging behind a day or two or three,” Palm said.

On Friday, DHS reported 1,018 new positive cases statewide, the third time in four days that daily positive cases surpassed 1,000. Wisconsin’s seven-day average of confirmed cases sat at 915 as of Friday, according to DHS.

Public Health Madison and Dane County spokeswoman Sarah Mattes said the agency over the past couple of weeks has shown a high positivity rate due to staff prioritizing the processing of positive test results. Mattes said increased testing in Dane County has led to backlogs in processing negative test results. The backlogs don’t affect notification of test results, but rather the positive rate.

As of Friday, Mattes said the health department has updated its data dashboard to now include negative tests that have entered the data dashboard but haven’t yet been processed by staff. On the department’s data dashboard, that applies to the positive rate and the number of tests by day. Mattes said 17,000 negative tests are now included in the data set.

The county’s most recent snapshot for July 22 shows a 2.8% positive rate.

Palm said delays in reporting negative tests can impact the department’s daily data, primarily the percentage of positive cases. However, she said the seven-day rolling average helps smooth out fluctuations in reported cases.

“On a day-to-day basis, it certainly impacts those numbers,” Palm said.

While Palm downplayed the significance of a backlog, Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said the delays have not been properly acknowledged by DHS officials and result in misleading information.

“DHS and local public health officials have been telling us that the increases in COVID-19 positives are not simply because of more testing,” Nass said in a statement. “We now know those statements were inaccurate and misleading due to the significant backlog in processing negative results.”

State Republicans have regularly criticized Palm and DHS over the department’s handling of COVID-19 data since the pandemic began earlier this year. Lawmakers in May filed a lawsuit against Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ extension of a stay-at-home order. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ultimately struck down the order.

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