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Texas government lacks timely data for 90% of coronavirus cases there

Authorities can attribute dates to less than 11% of all cases.

Updated: July 9, 2020 - 10:48pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Alarming reports of surging coronavirus infections in Texas are muddied by opaque gaps in state-reported data there, leaving the true status of the virus's progression in that state uncertain — and possibly less dire than many are making it out to seem.

The state's COVID-19 dashboard has been recording increasingly high numbers of cases in recent days; this week saw two consecutive days of new cases at around 10,000 each. 

Those numbers have led to increasing fears that the coronavirus pandemic is growing out of control in Texas, with authorities worrying that hospital systems will soon be overwhelmed and deaths will begin to skyrocket. 

Yet it is not actually clear how many of the cases being announced by the state actually correspond to the dates in which they are posted. Resolving that data is critical, simply because without it, public health officials and epidemiologists have no way of knowing the present path the virus is taking, including whether it is surging or waning. 

Lyndsey Rosales, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, confirmed to Just the News this week that the state lacks dating information for the vast majority of cases it posts. 

"DSHS reports cases on our dashboard as local health departments and our public health regions report them," Rosales said. "We don’t attribute them to the date to when a person received a confirmed COVID-19 test result or developed symptoms."

Asked if illness-onset or confirmed-test metrics existed at any level of the data collection process, Rosales suggested that, even at the county level, those data are sparsely recorded. 

"Some local health departments like Harris and Houston do track cases by date of onset, but not all Texas counties do," she said. "That information is collected on the case report form."

"However," she added, "DSHS has very limited data about this — only for less than 24K of the 210K cases in Texas, because the majority of the case investigations have not been completed and submitted." 

Those figures mean health officials in Texas are only able to attribute illness-onset dates to about 10% of all COVID-19 cases in the state, a critical flaw in the state's ability to properly assess the virus's progression several months after the pandemic's outset.

The lack of timely data for around 90% of COVID-19 cases in Texas raises concerns that the outbreak is not being properly reflected in state and media reports. Critics have claimed that Texas's skyrocketing case counts show the state reopened too soon and with not enough safeguards in place, but it is not clear how much of the recent surge in cases are actually from earlier tests that are unreflective of the state of the outbreak today.

Data backlogs occur throughout the country

Other localities have in the past posted huge numbers due to backlogged test results. At the end of May, L.A. County posted over 2,000 new infection cases in one day, a surge it attributed in part to delayed reporting. A similar effect was seen in Michigan earlier in that month.

At the beginning of June, meanwhile, Virginia added 13,000 backlogged cases to its test results, though the state added the delayed cases back to the appropriate dates rather than piling them onto one day. 

And Los Angeles County on Tuesday posted its highest-ever one-day total of 4,015 confirmed cases, a record that public officials said was due "in part" to "a backlog of about 2,000 test results."