Great Britain

'We're back to feeling blind': glitch leaves California's Covid numbers uncertain

California has recorded 525,000 positive coronavirus tests, more than any other US state. But health officials warn the true number is even higher, and they will not know how much higher until a technical problem with the state’s coronavirus testing database is resolved.

The technical problem has caused a backlog in reporting to the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange (CalRedie), the database that collects testing data from labs around the state. The state’s data on coronavirus hospitalizations and death statistics do not appear to have been affected.

The glitch may be behind what appeared to be a 21% decline in the number of positive Covid tests that California had recorded. The incomplete data in the country’s most populous state has hampered public health officials’ ability to follow up with those who test positive and contact people who have been around them to limit the spread.

“Back in February and March when we didn’t have enough testing, I would say we felt blind,” said Dr Sara Cody, Santa Clara county’s public health director. “I would say now we’re back to feeling blind. We don’t know how the epidemic is trending.”

Because the state uses data such as infection rates to determine which counties land on a watchlist, the state won’t be moving any counties on or off the list “until further notice”.

Counties must come off the list for 14 days to be able to reopen certain businesses and offer in-classroom instruction for elementary students. There are 38 counties on the list, including the state’s largest counties.

In Los Angeles county, which has a quarter of the state’s 40 million residents, public health officials have reached out to labs to get testing data directly so they don’t depend on the state. Barbara Ferrer, the county’s health director, said she hopes to have an updated case count by the end of the week.

The problem comes as California appears to be making progress against a surge of infections that led the governor, Gavin Newsom, last month to close bars and indoor restaurant dining statewide and shut school campuses in much of the state. On Wednesday, the state reported only about 5,300 new virus cases, a far cry from the peak of nearly 13,000 reported about two weeks ago.

The state’s infection rate, a harbinger of how much hospitalizations are likely to increase, stood at 5.5% on Wednesday, but it is unclear if, when the additional data is added, the decline will be as pronounced.

Meantime, the data on hospitalizations has shown improvement. It is collected differently, and in the last two weeks has fallen by more than 12% to 6,184 patients.

County health officials say without knowing how many cases are missing, it is hard to know where the virus is heading.

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