A state data tracking error has caused significant underreporting of COVID-19 cases over the past 10 days, calling into question recent virus data from Santa Barbara County and other areas, the county Public Health Department reported Tuesday.
According to county Public Health Director Dr. Henning Ansorg, the error was caused by issues with the electronic filing system used by labs to send data through CalREDIE, the state's data tracking tool.
The data disclaimer comes on the heels of another tracking error announced by the county on Friday, when officials shared that 28 deaths related to the virus had gone undetected over the past few months.
Ansorg said with these recent errors, their tracking system has essentially "broken down," and that recent positive reports about the state's virus situation were likely misrepresented.
"When I looked at the last 10 days, I was encouraged. This is really discouraging now, and I'm really sorry to say that. If I look at the previous weeks, I think it’s a significant amount of underreporting," Ansorg said.
While reporting of test results to patients was supposedly not affected by the error, along with hospitalization and death rates, the delay in reporting of cases to the county through CalREDIE will likely impact contact tracing efforts, Ansorg said.
For this reason, members of the public are encouraged to continue social distancing and abstain from gathering with people outside their household.
When Ansorg announced the daily case count of 62 additional cases Tuesday, he added the caveat that the true number is likely much higher.
"We share today’s daily case stats with the disclaimer that we cannot be sure these cases reflect our new situation," he said.
To remedy the state data error, labs across the state are encouraged to report testing data directly to public health departments, Ansorg said. In addition, the county will be tracking deaths manually, rather than awaiting confirmation through the state's system.
The county is also hiring new data and epidemiology staff to support their contact tracing and data tracking efforts, he added.
Also on Tuesday, the county confirmed the deaths of three additional residents who had contracted COVID-19, bringing the county's death total to 64.
Of these deaths, one was confirmed to be a resident of Santa Maria, another from Lompoc, and one from the unincorporated North County area.
All three residents were over 70 years of age, and two of the residents had underlying health conditions, according to the county.
According to county Public Health spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz, the deaths occurred on July 16, July 24 and July 30, but due to processing delays, the county did not receive the death certificates until Tuesday.
Delays in reporting deaths can also occur when the cause of death on the certificate is unclear, or the department has to follow up with the coroner, Ruiz said.
COVID-19 cases by area
With the addition of 62 cases on Tuesday, the county's case total is now 6,526, including cases from the Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc.
A total of 227 cases remain active and infectious, according to county data.
Hospitalizations rose by 7% since Monday, with 88 individuals currently hospitalized, of which 25 are in the ICU.
Santa Maria continues to hold the highest number of cases, with 98 active out of 2,941 total cases reported. A total of 35 individuals have died, including 11 who died in connection with an outbreak at Country Oaks Care Center.
The community of Orcutt has four active cases out of 208 total cases. Three individuals have died.
In the city of Lompoc, 23 cases are active out of 480 total cases. Seven individuals have died.
The Santa Ynez Valley has one active case, with 74 cases confirmed thus far. Two individuals have died.
At the Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc, 1,1019 total cases have been confirmed with no cases currently active. On Monday, the county announced that eight cases previously reported as being from other areas were determined to be from the prison, and added them to the case count.
Three inmates at the prison have died, as confirmed by the county, although the Bureau of Prisons has confirmed that four have died so far. The county has clarified that they are awaiting a death certificate for a fourth inmate to confirm the cause of death.