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Missing data in COVID-19 tests lead health officials to include zip codes

(WDBJ)
Published: Jun. 8, 2020 at 9:00 PM EDT
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Up until a few weeks ago, about 37,000 COVID-19 tests in Virginia were unaccounted for. That meant

couldn't tell where those tests came from.

All it took was a zip code to increase testing totals in Roanoke by the thousands.

At the State's Department of Health, Em Stephens is taking in and turning out data faster than she's ever done, making COVID-19 updates daily.

"I'm used to the world where our flu surveillance is some of the more real -time surveillance that we do and it's published on a weekly basis," Stephens said Monday.

Because turnaround is quick and data pass through so many hands, there can be discrepancies in what's reported at the state and local level.

"So there are definitely instances when what's happening at the local level isn't necessarily reflected in the state numbers," she said.

That was the case with COVID-19 tests. Stephens said incomplete data from labs meant around 37,000 tests were listed on their website as unknown instead of being listed in the health district where the test took place.

"It's a required field," she said. "But if labs don't send it, then there's not really a way for us to get at that information."

Stephens said this was a particular issue in the Roanoke area.

"There's a particular laboratory there that I can't name but that does not provide enough patient information for us to say where the person lives."

That information often came down to a patient's missing zip code. So, in late May, the state began classifying those "unknown" tests by the provider or lab's zip code, in an attempt to log them as close as possible to where the patients live.

That increased Roanoke's total testing encounters by about 6,000. Stephens said it's important to note, these data don't affect the number of cases or deaths reported. But Molly O'Dell, a leader with the Roanoke-Alleghany Health District, said it does allow them to more accurately assess the positive rate in their districts.

These are not perfect data, but it's an improvement, one of the many Stephens says are happening in the midst of this pandemic.

"We're working as best we can to take the data we have in the system and provide it in the most actionable way out the door as possible," she said.

Copyright 2020 WDBJ7. All rights reserved.

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