Backlog in reporting of test results swells coronavirus case count in L.A. County

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 12: Cars line up at a COVID19 test site at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Cars line up at a COVID-19 test site at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 12 in Los Angeles. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Los Angeles County swelled significantly this week — the result, officials said, of a sizable backlog in the reporting of test results because of technical glitches.

While the full extent of the problem, and how much it will ultimately affect the county’s COVID-19 case counts, remains to be seen. Public health officials said Thursday that they’ve addressed the issues, though they expect to receive more accumulated results in the coming days.

Of the 3,600 new cases reported in the county Thursday, officials said roughly 2,000 were from the backlog.

“In addition to processing issues in the state’s reporting system that resulted in a large volume of duplicate records being sent to L.A. County, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated a real-time build out of reportable disease surveillance systems that were not initially set up for the sheer volume of data nor the real-time demand for highly processed data necessary to respond to COVID-19,” the county Department of Public Health told The Times in a statement. “As we build out additional capacities and solutions while continuing to process, sometimes there are technical issues with one of the numerous functionalities in the pipelines.”

Reporting issues have popped up periodically throughout the pandemic. The most significant snafu came to light in August, when state officials announced that a series of data failures had created a backlog of 250,000 to 300,000 test results in California.

While always essential, access to complete, trustworthy data is all the more vital now as California works to ward off the kinds of coronavirus surges that are striking many other states.

Already, more than 893,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in California — the most of any state — and over 17,200 people have died from the disease.

L.A. County alone accounts for more than 294,000 cases and is nearing 7,000 deaths.

Separate from the data issues, the county has also seen a slight uptick in its daily number of reported cases since mid-September, “and this is a cause for some worry,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said earlier this week.

The latest data logjam comes as L.A. County is looking to relax some coronavirus-related restrictions to bring local rules in line with wider state guidelines.

The changes, expected to be incorporated into a revised health officer order Friday, would eliminate a requirement that customers at wineries and breweries make reservations, remove the food service requirement for wineries, and allow family entertainment centers to reopen outdoor attractions such as go-kart tracks, miniature golf courses and batting cages.

State officials also announced this week that all personal care services — which include hair removal and massage and tattoo parlors — will now be allowed to resume modified indoor operations.

Officials also said that all L.A. County schools will be allowed to bring on campus up to 25% of their enrollment to serve students with special needs, especially those with disabilities or who are learning English.

Additionally, The Times has learned that officials have made it easier for elementary schools to reopen for their youngest students under waivers that drop a requirement that schools obtain a letter of support from employee unions as part of their applications.

L.A. County remains in Tier 1 of California’s four-tier reopening plan — also known as the purple tier, which indicates widespread risk of community coronavirus transmission.

For counties in that category, many businesses and public facilities either cannot operate indoors or can do so only at a strictly limited capacity.

Counties are placed in the purple tier if they have more than seven new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people per day or a test positivity rate of more than 8%. As of now, L.A. County’s new case rate remains too high to move into a less restrictive tier.

Moving through the state’s reopening tiers is a deliberative process by design. Counties must stay in a tier for at least three weeks before progressing and, to do so, must meet the next tier’s benchmarks for two straight weeks.

Counties can also backslide to a more restrictive tier if their metrics worsen for two consecutive weeks, as happened most recently with Riverside and Shasta counties.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said officials had developed a “slow and stringent” approach based on lessons from the first reopening — during which the state rapidly loosened restrictions, only to see coronavirus infections surge to new heights over the summer.

However, some county-level officials continue to take umbrage with what they see as an overly slow, one-size-fits-all strategy.

“The top-down approach to mitigating COVID-19 from Sacramento is not working,” Michelle Steel, chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said during a news conference Thursday. “While most businesses have reopened, they’re still operating in a limited capacity due to state mandates.”

Orange County is currently in Tier 2, called the red tier, which indicates substantial risk of community coronavirus spread.

Under new guidance the state unveiled this week, theme parks like Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm — among the county’s largest employers — won’t be allowed to open even in a limited capacity until the county moves into a less restrictive tier.

The state’s approach, Steel said, “is harming our residents who need work, small businesses and the communities that rely on them.”

“Orange County has not been the only county to express concern about this model,” she said. “We want to work with the state on containing and eventually eliminating this virus, but this top-down approach with little communication isn’t productive. Each local government has different issues affecting the spread of COVID-19.”

Officials have repeatedly emphasized that a county’s residents play a huge role in tamping case rates down to a level that will permit further lifting of restrictions.

“When we look at the widespread transmission occurring in L.A. County, we know that many people who become positive for COVID-19 are unaware they were exposed to an infected person,” Ferrer said in a statement Thursday. “I [ask] that you keep this in mind when you are out and about.”

While it’s not a given that residents will come into contact with someone who is infected, “We do know with certainty that when people don’t protect themselves and others — by wearing a face covering, washing hands often and staying at least six feet from others — this virus can quickly spread with devastating effects,” she said.

Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II, Howard Blume and Laura Newberry contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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