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Arizona’s handling of COVID 19 health data gets new challenge

Coronavirus test
Posted at 7:31 PM, Aug 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-18 23:34:44-04

PHOENIX — COVID 19 data compiled by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) is facing a new challenge over whether it truly reflects the percentage of positive tests. Percent positive is a key metric that’s now guiding decisions to reopen schools and businesses. The number for Arizona varies depending where you go to get the information.

The reason: ADHS leadership says it’s not counting all data available to get a true number of the state’s positivity rate. That’s because labs doing the testing are not reporting the results in the same way. Some labs enter their numbers electronically while others fax them to ADHS. The data delivered by FAX isn’t being counted. Challenging ADHS is former director Will Humble, now Executive Director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

“The health department is deciding to just dismiss that data,” said Humble. “Just because it might take some data entry, just to me, doesn’t seem like is a good idea. So, my suggestion is to just hire some temps. I mean we did that all the time when I ran the state health department and when we had a special project we’d hire Kelly Services to come out.”

Most of the data the state is missing are negative tests results. Humble told ABC 15 it would likely take four to five people to temporarily input the missing data manually. The state’s current director, Dr. Cara Christ, used to report to Humble. Dr. Christ told this week in part that “data entry is not the department’s priority.”

“This is what’s sort of been the hang up,” said ABC15 data analyst Garrett Archer. “Adding in these positives, not the negatives to go with it. It makes everybody assume Arizona’s percent positive is higher than it is.”

Archer has spoken with ADHS several times about giving ABC15 access to all the data.

“While they have never made a commitment to us that they were going to report the negatives, they did make a commitment to give us an ability to see which ones were from the electronic reporting system. So, we could take out the positives that could possibly be messing with our calculations.” he said.

As for which percent positive we should believe, that answer is more difficult. For the week ending on August 9, ADHS had a six percent positivity, whereas, national tracking websites like Johns Hopkins University says that the rolling average is just under 10%. Those numbers are also different than University of Arizona Professor Dr. Joe Gerald who wrote in his latest Arizona report, in part, “the test positive percentage is nine percent, which is above the recommended three to five percent.”

A spokesperson for Governor Doug Ducey’s office said in an email that the percent positivity rate updated daily by the Department of Health Services is the most reliable calculation for this metric available. In an email he wrote, “ADHS backfills tests to the day they are conducted, providing a more accurate picture of test positivity.”

ABC15 also asked if the governor’s office will require ADHS to start reporting the negatives from labs that do not use the electronic reporting system. The spokesperson said ADHS is working to onboard additional labs into the electronic reporting system.

Officials with ADHS say they use test results provided to them in electric format, "this accounts for three-quarters of all tests reported to ADHS," according to a statement by email.

They went on to say that there is an extremely large number of tests provided electronically and they wrote in an email that it is enough to consistently provide a reliable figure for percent positivity.

As for adding more labs to report electronically they say it’s not that easy, "this is a months-long process that requires significant technical expertise. In total, 33 labs are electronically reporting COVID-19 test results currently."

Throughout the pandemic, Arizona’s management of the state’s data has been challenged from all sides. On a frequent basis, outside analysts and modelers run the numbers and reach conflicting conclusions. This past spring, Governor Doug Ducey tried to fire a team from the state’s universities over their analysis — a decision he quickly reversed after public pressure. There have been questions about the Arizona Department of Health Services cherry picking and manipulating stats to support policy decisions to keep Arizona Open.