Public Health explains delays in Dane Co. COVID-19 test results

After a 17,000 test backlog, public health data expert breaks down how backlogs happen.
Published: Jul. 27, 2020 at 8:47 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - As COVID-19 cases continued to rise in Dane County, Public Health Madison & Dane County said they had to refocus to control the spread of the disease.

“We did redirect some efforts to focus on positive cases, to focus on contact tracing,” said Katarina Grande, COVID Data Team Lead with Public Health Madison & Dane County.

This meant taking resources away from processing other tests, delaying reporting some negative test results.

This led to a backlog of 17,000 uncounted negative cases. Those cases are now accounted for and added to PHMDC’s data.

As Grande explained, processing test results is an already intensive process.

“All 152,000 labs, when they hit Public Health have to be managed manually,” she explained.

Staff have to manually check for duplicate tests and make sure each result gets sorted into the right county before reporting those numbers.

“We wait to find what county they correspond to so that we’re getting the most accurate numbers out there,” Grande said.

If addresses are incomplete, staff has to spend time matching individual results with the right county, which can cause delays in reporting those results.

Grande also said that manual processing is what causes the biggest delays.

“It’s not an efficient process, and it does say something about investment in public health infrastructure. I think it’s been neglected for a long time and we’re reliant then on these systems that require so much manual processing, when really we could use updated technology to help that,” she said.

Grande also emphasized that those processing delays are completely separate from communicating individual patients’ results.

“Just because we are experiencing backlogs that are in our data system, it’s not impacting people receiving their results in the same way, two separate things,” she explained.

Grande also explained that tracking data real time can be a challenge, which is why reopening plans like Forward Dane focus on multiple factors, not just positive cases.

“If we know that there’s a data issue with one metric, that’s why we have other metrics that wrap around it to try and paint the picture,” she said.

Grande explained that in October, staff at PHMDC are expecting an upgrade to the state’s COVID-19 data tracking system. Grande said the upgrade will likely automatically check for duplicates and import data, eliminating much of the manual effort.

Copyright 2020 WMTV. All rights reserved.

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