Harris County

Automated Process Caused Harris County COVID-19 Case Count To Jump By 14,000

Most of the cases — were 13,110 — were older than 28 days, while 341 were from the last two weeks, the county said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in April.

A new automated system of processing COVID-19 cases led to a backlog of nearly 14,000 positive results added to official counts, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

When the county receives its case reports from hospitals, labs and from the state, it comes as a data dump, Hidalgo said. The county then has to sift through that data and verify all results are from Harris County, and that none of the data is duplicated.

Previously, that work was done entirely by hand, and took three-to-five days. But now, a new automated system can process 80-90% of cases overnight, she said — leading to a jump of 13,875 reported cases on Monday alone.

Despite that lag in reporting, Hidalgo said the county has tried to be as transparent as possible with the data they receive.

"It does tell us that certainly the number of cases that were out there before was larger than we knew at the time,” Hidalgo said. “But we don’t want to be holding on to data that we could be processing."

Most of the cases — 13,110 — were older than 28 days, while 341 were from the last two weeks, the county said.

Despite the jump in confirmed cases, Hidalgo said the general picture of the virus in the Greater Houston area remains the same.

“It didn’t affect, you know, our region for 14-day trends,” she said. “It’s simply impacted the historical record that we’re compiling on the epidemiological curve.”

The county’s health department finalized the automation last week, and changes were implemented over the weekend. The automation process will continue going forward, Hidalgo said.

Last month, Texas saw a jump in COVID-19 cases after the state changed its reporting methods. After the change, it became clear more that 12% of all COVID-19 deaths had gone previously unreported.

And earlier this month, state health officials published new data that showed as Texas began to lift coronavirus restrictions in the spring, the state’s positivity rate was higher than was disclosed at the time.

Harris County has now confirmed more than 138,000 cases of COVID-19. According to Hidalgo, there may be as many as 9,000 cases that remain currently backlogged.

But that number is changing daily, she said. And not all cases will be caught by automation. Some will still have to be manually checked, and those results will still take a few days to process. Complicating the issue, she said, is that there’s no set standard for how data is reported: State labs aren’t required to provide the date a test was taken, or when symptoms began to show.

“It just kind of reminds you that that the systems are not perfectly efficient,” Hidalgo said. “But that’s a challenge that we’ve had from the very beginning of this pandemic, when it comes to cases.”

Additional reporting by Paul DeBenedetto

Sara Willa Ernst is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Sara's work at Houston Public Media is made possible with support from KERA in Dallas.

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