North Texas officials still dealing with backlogged reporting of COVID-19 cases

For nearly two months now the state of Texas has been releasing hundreds of backlogged COVID-19 cases, raising significant questions about the data being used to determine when schools and businesses reopen.

North Texas area health officials say the ongoing backlog shows the need for several improvements.

“What it has shown is how antiquated and outdated a lot of the data systems have been for public health,” said Dallas County Health Director Dr. Philip Huang.

Tuesday's Dallas County report included 480 cases from an undefined period of September, meaning they could be from the beginning of the month or more recent. All of them came from the state's electronic lab reporting system.

“We’ll report everything we get – whether it was April or May or it was just last week,” Huang said.

He explained the county is upgrading its data system right now.

“We get literally hundreds of paper faxes of lab reports every day that have to be hand entered into these systems,” Huang said.

The state has been releasing backlogged case numbers since August, with no clear outlook on when that will be resolved. The issues range from its former system being backlogged, to communication gaps between its system and the languages labs used to report cases.

“We locally are right now are improving and upgrading our own data systems,” Huang said.

Dr. Rajesh Nandy, Associate Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth says because glitches and trends in testing can cause large fluctuations in case counts, it is better to rely on hospitalization numbers for key reopening decisions.

“We can detect a negative trend much earlier compared to what we can do with the daily reported cases,” Nandy said.

While Nandy says there has been a slight uptick in ER visits in all four major North Texas counties, hospitalizations have remained flat, despite many schools reopening September 8 and some even earlier.

“I haven’t seen anything that would alarm me,” Nandy said.