State health department warns daily case counts are underestimates as data backlog continues

Published: Nov. 27, 2020 at 8:39 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Officials with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services are continuing to raise concerns that the rising number of COVID-19 is overburdening their data systems. At a DHSS press conference Friday, officials pointed to staffing as the main source of the backlog the state is seeing.

“Honestly, the number of cases that get reported each day is more a direct reflection of the number of people we have to enter in those cases,” said Dr. Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with DHHS’s Division of Public Health.

Rising cases and large batches of data, like the one that came from an Anchorage commercial lab that went weeks without reporting its data to the state, have created a backlog of data that officials are scrambling to get into the system. That backlog means that daily case counts and reports from the state are lower than the real numbers.

“Cases diagnosed in recent weeks exceeded the ability of public health to immediately report individual cases,” DHSS wrote in its weekly case update Friday. “Cases reported this week are an underestimate of the true case numbers.”

However, daily case counts aren’t the only statistic to watch, especially with the backlog. Castrodale pointed to more long-term data that highlights how the virus is trending.

“That really has less relevance than what we’re seeing when that data kind of backloads to when people were actually sick or when that specimen was collected, and that’s why we’ve got 7-day averages and 14-day averages,” she said.

And those averages point to a virus that is continuing to spread rapidly.

“Even though we couldn’t give an exact number to leaders about exactly how many cases we have today, we can be fairly, I mean absolutely certain that there is continued acceleration,” Castrodale said.

As for getting more staff, Heidi Hedberg, director of the DHHS Division of Public Health said they are actively hiring new staff for data, and encouraged qualified individuals to apply, though the state’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink warned an influx of applicants wouldn’t solve this issue immediately.

“There are some functional limitations that just happen whenever you hire someone and train them on a new system,” she said. “So we’re going as fast and as hard was we can.”

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