While other metrics like declining hospitalizations appear to show a positive trend in the pandemic in California — which Governor Gavin Newsom spoke of with a hint of optimism on Monday — the current confirmed case numbers for many counties and the state as a whole represent undercounts due to a technical issue.
It's not clear for how many days the undercount has been occurring, how significant the undercount is, or how many counties' counts it will end up impacting. But as the Sacramento Bee reports, many California counties' public health websites currently have disclaimers posted saying that current data has been delayed at the state level.
Here in the Bay Area, where new case totals are typically posted around 10 p.m. in Sonoma County, the latest numbers from Monday have not yet appeared on the county's public health department site. "We will update this table when we receive the data from the state," the site says.
Similarly, Santa Clara County has not updated its counts since mid-day on Monday, and Alameda County just posted a suspiciously low one-day increase today after weeks of triple-digit upticks — the county posted only 63 new cases, when Monday's uptick was 322.
Thus the Bay Area's current case count of 56,566 is likely missing hundreds of confirmed cases across at least these three counties.
The California Department of Public Health has identified the problem as one connected to its electronic laboratory reporting system, and the problem seems to have just cropped up in the last 24 hours.
As the Sac Bee explains, the system in question is called CalREDIE, and "it is used by nearly all of California’s local health offices to track disease data and transmit it between those local offices, laboratories, health providers and the state."
California's Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the department had "identified some discrepancies," and it's working to fix them. Ghaly said the main issue was the volume of case data flowing out of state labs, which he said was "testing the capacity" of the system overall. Ghaly also said that there had been weekly lags in the system since the pandemic began, including backlogs over weekends which tend to result in large upticks on Monday or Tuesday. This is why the state tends to rely more on 7- and 14-day averages in making its decisions around public health.
Ghaly assured residents in a weekly Zoom update that the glitch isn't going to change Newsom's optimism from yesterday. "We [still] feel confident that [the state's numbers] are beginning to stabilize, as the governor mentioned yesterday," he said.
Still, as the discrepancies are resolved, we can likely expect more backlog-related jumps in case counts later this week.
And all of this is not to say that COVID-19 cases aren't being vastly undercounted for other reasons — people with no symptoms or mild cases with few symptoms have likely gone without testing going back five months, and undocumented immigrants and others averse to going to hospitals or testing sites have also likely allowed cases to go uncounted.
In late June, the Centers for Disease Control said they believed actual case numbers were anywhere between six and 24 times higher than have been counted, depending on the region of the U.S. Knowing the actual numbers will be the only way for experts to ultimately determine the mortality rate of this coronavirus.
Photo: Mika Baumeister