A major data tracking error by the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department left 28 COVID-19 deaths that occurred over the past three months uncounted until Friday, county officials announced at a press conference.
The deaths, which dated between April 1 and July 27, dropped off the department's radar after the department switched from manual data tracking to the state-run CalCONNECT system in May, according to Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso.
With the new numbers, the county's death count is 60, rather than the previously-reported 32. The total includes three deaths reported at the Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc and the death of one individual whose permanent residence was out of the county.
According to Do-Reynoso, the surge in cases in June and July being tracked on a new system caused the department to miss several death certificates, before vital records staff noted a discrepancy in data.
"We switched from manual data processing to the state CalCONNECT system. At that same time we had a surge in our number of cases. We lost count of the certificates that were coming through," she said.
Gregg Hart, 2nd District supervisor, said the Board of Supervisors is responsible for providing sufficient staffing to Public Health, and as a result will be allocating further funds to the department.
"Additional data experts will be joining our team in the very near future," Hart said.
Of the 28 additional deaths, 16 were in Santa Maria, three were in Santa Barbara, one was in the unincorporated North County area, two occurred in the Santa Ynez Valley, two occurred in Lompoc, one was in Goleta, two were in the community of Orcutt, and one occurred in the unincorporated South County area.
According to the Public Health Department, 16 of the individuals were over 70 years old, eight were between the ages of 50-69, two were between the ages of 30-29, and one was in the 18-29 age range.
Additionally, six were residents were from skilled nursing facilities, and 10 were agricultural workers.
However, Public Health officials did not clarify which facilities the individuals were from, nor did they clarify whether the agricultural workers died as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak at worker housing owned by Alco Harvesting.
Public Health officials said they have now fixed the data tracking problem, and going forward will be tracking deaths exclusively through death certificates. This could add an additional delay of a few days in announcing COVID-19 deaths, Do-Reynoso said.
"We don't have all the answers today since we wanted to share the news as soon as possible. We don’t want to sugarcoat this," Hart said. "Our goal is to fully be transparent in our reporting."
Quest Diagnostics data
The department also faced data confusion in the past week due to lab errors by Quest Diagnostics, a major source of testing for Santa Barbara County.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department announced that 20 sheriff's deputies and three inmates at the county jail had falsely tested positive for COVID-19, an error that was discovered after the department requested that Quest Diagnostic re-test the samples.
According to county Public Health Officer Henning Ansorg, the error occurred due to testing chemicals that had "gone bad," and the lab notified all counties and hospitals whose results may be affected.
"Obviously, if anyone gets a false positive test back, that is disconcerting," Ansorg said.
He stated that the county has since been able to retest samples that may have been impacted but did not specify how many county tests were at stake.
COVID-19 cases by area
Along with the additional deaths, the department announced 74 additional COVID-19 cases in the county as of Friday, with 334 cases still active.
A total of 85 individuals are hospitalized, with 28 in the ICU.
The city of Santa Maria has 97 active cases out of 2,789 total cases. The city has seen 34 deaths.
In the community of Orcutt, seven cases are active and 197 cases have been reported. Two deaths have occurred.
Lompoc has 27 active cases out of 224 total cases reported thus far. Six deaths have occurred in the city.
The Santa Ynez Valley has four active cases out of 71 total. Two deaths have occurred in the area.
No active cases exist at the Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc, where 1,011 cases were confirmed and three individuals died.
San Luis Obispo County
COVID-19 deaths have increased in San Luis Obispo County, with 14 new deaths in the past month for a total of 15.
The county also announced 43 additional COVID-19 cases as of Friday for a total of 1,783, with 399 cases still active.