Hundreds of positive COVID-19 test results weren’t reported to Alaska’s health department in the past month, one of several indicators of a taxed data reporting system and a sign that climbing daily case tallies announced by the state reflect only a portion of recent cases.
Public health workers audit labs and clinics periodically to understand their case numbers and make sure the department isn’t missing anything. Recently, they found out there was missing data from a specific lab, Dr. Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state, said during a Friday call with reporters.
Beechtree Labs, a new commercial lab in Anchorage, mixed up how it was supposed to report testing to the state’s Section of Epidemiology, said Coleman Cutchins, a clinical pharmacist who leads the state’s testing effort.
Patients and providers still got their results in a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time, Cutchins said, “so it didn’t affect patient care.”
Out of 13,169 tests conducted, many of which were performed in the past two weeks, there were 1,636 positive results, according to a recent update from the state health department. Until Wednesday, the lab had not reported data for about a month. Those results included 357 cases in Anchorage and 880 positive results in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Beyond the reporting lapse from a single lab, backlogs and slowdowns plague the entire COVID-19 data system. An understaffed department is part of it, Castrodale said. The daily case tallies are likely an undercount and instead reflect how many people the department has on hand to enter new cases into the database.
Understaffing isn’t just a problem at the state’s health department. It’s statewide, at clinics and labs as well, Castrodale said.
“It’s fair to say that the system is stretched,” she said.
Officials are working to refine their work and hire more people, Castrodale said.
Alaska isn’t alone when it comes to hiccups and slowdowns. The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said during the call that every state in the nation is struggling with similar issues.
But even without precise numbers that show what’s going on each day, Castrodale said they can be “absolutely certain that there is a continued acceleration.” Additionally, case trends like one-week and two-week case averages can help give a clearer picture of the current situation.
While Beechtree Labs is located in Anchorage, they collected samples from people in Kenai, Anchorage, Palmer and Wasilla, public health informaticist Megan Tompkins said Friday. There are still roughly 900 positive results that have not shown up in the state’s database because of the lag in reporting, she said.
“We’re working through them each day really as quickly as we can on top of the queue of all other cases that are in that queue,” Tompkins said.
Some of the cases in Friday’s tally, which included a major increase in cases within Mat-Su, are attributable to those backlogged cases being entered, Tompkins said.
[Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Beechtree Labs.]