Questions are being asked about a week of delayed reporting of COVID-19 data at a time when the pandemic has been at the peak of its fourth surge.  

Matthews

State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, says she’s hearing lots of grumbling about the agency in charge of reporting the data, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“Someone really needs to go in and look at what is really going on at DHEC,” she said today.  “I’m getting complaints.”

The agency has been unable to push full daily COVID updates since Jan. 24, reportedly due to a record number of tests being reported after a Jan. 21 update.

When asked whether the agency was embarrassed by being overwhelmed by data, DHEC spokesman Ron Aiken told Statehouse Report, “The unprecedented numbers of tests and cases generated by the omicron surge strained not just the state’s, but the entire country’s existing COVID-19 reporting infrastructure. We are no exception.

“No one wants delays of any kind, but the upside for the public of a temporarily challenging situation is that when issues such as this arise that expose a weakness, it affords you the opportunity to correct it in a responsible and responsive way that makes those process[es] and systems even more robust than they were before.”

At mid-week, DHEC resumed reporting of the numbers of new cases and deaths, but results for the number of tests administered and the percentage of positive test results — both of which are indicative of the severity of the pandemic now — are still delayed. A Thursday statement says reporting roadblocks have been removed and full results soon will be available.

“The delay was corrected Wednesday afternoon,” according to DHEC Public Health Director and Dr. Brannon Traxler in a statement to Statehouse Report, City Paper‘s sister publication this morning. “It began Monday due to an extraordinary volume of testing data funneling into a single software system. The long upload times of the large data files created a backlog that could not be accelerated, nor could the data waiting to be uploaded be analyzed and responsibly vetted.”

Recent reporting

The data that has been reported has been kind of a roller coaster. According to information released since last week:

  • Jan. 27:  9,934 total new cases reported, with 7,274 confirmed. New deaths: 26, with 20 confirmed.
  • Jan. 26: 4,085 total new cases, with 2,962 confirmed. New deaths: 19, with 16 confirmed.
  • Jan. 25: 7.526 new cases.
  • Jan. 24:  8,482 new cases.
  • Jan. 23: 19,383 new cases.
  • Jan. 22: 13,391 new cases.

When asked whether the recent surge is peaking, Traxler answered, “This is difficult to project, but it may be too early to say we’re nearing the end of the surge. Keep in mind that the first two cases [of the omicron variant] in South Carolina were reported just over a month ago. Now, we’re reporting more than 1,450 cases on our variant dashboard. That doesn’t include what other labs across the state are seeing and this only represents a fraction of the cases in South Carolina, since we’re only sequencing to look at the trends, rather than the total case counts. 

“That said, we have seen some incremental decreases in the surge, meaning while cases are still increasing, they’ve been increasing at a lesser rate over the last couple of weeks or so. This is certainly promising, and we hope to continue seeing a decline.”

The Twitter story

Throughout the week, DHEC has kept people apprised of developments related to the data delay via Twitter. Here is its timeline in tweets:

Jan. 24: Large volume

“Due to the large volume of test results we are receiving and the need to ensure that data released publicly are as accurate as possible, data reports from Thursday – Sunday will be delayed today, Monday, Jan. 24, and will be released tomorrow.” 

Jan. 24: Regrets delay; Patience

“DHEC regrets this delay and appreciates the public’s patience in our efforts to provide accurate COVID-19 data so South Carolinians can have as much information as possible during this unprecedented pandemic.” 

Jan. 24: “Inadvertently published”

After the agency updated its webpage with incorrect numbers, it tweeted:

“The dates on our main page were staged earlier today before we were aware of the delay. This change was inadvertently published when the top page alert was added about the data delay. The dates have been corrected. This data is the same data that was published on Friday, 1/21.” 

Jan. 25: Not impacting individual results

“It is also important to know that these data processing problems are not impacting individuals receiving their results or the prioritized case investigations through which DHEC provides guidance to people in high-risk settings who have tested positive and their contacts.” 

Jan. 26: Still not able to release

“DHEC is not yet able to release percent positivity numbers, since we are still importing negative results into our system. We expect to begin reporting these numbers in the coming days.” 

Jan. 26: Big volume

“The processing delay was due to an extraordinary volume of testing data funneling into a single software system.”

“DHEC receives test results from labs and healthcare providers through electronic and spreadsheet reporting, in a 50/50 percent submission ratio.”

“Electronic reporting is preferred, but not all labs and providers are able to electronically transfer test results directly into our reporting system. Some submit spreadsheets to DHEC that must be uploaded into our reporting system.”

“With 15 million reports, containing some duplicates from labs and providers, it takes time to load, clean, and date the test results accurately for reporting.”

“DHEC staff have been working non-stop, 24 hours a day to resolve the processing issue and develop a permanent fix to prevent future data delays.”

Jan. 27: Import problems

“Today, DHEC announced 9934 new cases of COVID-19 (7274 confirmed, 2660 probable), 26 new deaths (20 confirmed, 6 probable). See today’s updated COVID-19 and vaccine data at https://scdhec.gov/covid19data.

“[NOTE: DHEC is not yet able to release percent positivity numbers, since we are still importing negative results into our system. We expect to begin reporting these numbers in the coming days.]”

Jan. 27: Backlogs cleared

Andy Brack and Skyler Baldwin, a reporter with the Charleston City Paper, contributed to this story. Have a comment? Send to: feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com