Data reporting problems continue to hamper Washington’s daily COVID-19 updates, leaving an incomplete picture of the virus’s spread in this state.

The latest problem, which the state Department of Health has said involves duplicate counts of negative test results, has led the agency to stop publishing daily tallies of negative test results. That number has not been available since Aug. 1.

The agency continues to provide daily updates on positive tests statewide but is “having problems with our de-duplicating processes to ensure we are not over reporting the number of negative tests,” DOH spokesperson Lisa Stromme Warren wrote in an email Monday.

Without complete data, it’s impossible to calculate the state’s positivity rate — the percentage of total tests that have come back positive — which is a key metric. Changes in that rate can indicate changes in the virus’s spread through the population. It is a driving factor for planning public health responses and determining whether and when businesses can reopen and people can relax social distancing and other safety precautions.

Local health departments separately track case trends for their own jurisdictions, however. For example, 5% of King County’s 337,664 tests have been positive, according to Public Health Seattle & King County. That’s below what the statewide rate had typically been when the state data was available.

Stromme Warren said Monday the DOH couldn’t readily provide a fuller explanation for the cause of the ongoing problems or say when they will be fixed.

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This isn’t the first time the DOH has had problems reporting COVID-19 data. A flood of coronavirus testing data at the end of March overwhelmed the state’s disease reporting system, resulting in a lag in new case updates until a software fix was made. In June, the state announced it had been over-reporting negative test results for about two months due to problems with a system workaround meant to address the high volume of negative cases.

The DOH first issued a statement about the current problem on July 31, describing it as an “outage with our reporting system” that “caused interruptions in several functions.”

The statement said the agency anticipated negative test counts likely “will be behind for a few days,” affecting positivity rate data and some visualizations on the dashboard.

Two days later, a DOH spokesperson said the problems had been triggered by a password for a new cloud computing account that had unexpectedly expired. The DOH had updated the password and addressed the issues, the spokeswoman said.

But since then, the problems have persisted.

Dr. Cathy Wasserman, the state epidemiologist for non-infectious conditions, who is overseeing the issue, wasn’t available Monday to provide a fuller explanation of the problems, Stromme Warren said. Wasserman also did not respond to messages left for her Monday.

When pressed as to when Wasserman would be available, Stromme Warren responded: “Later this week, but I don’t yet know when. I know she wants to be able to give you a full explanation vs. a partial, and we’re still working on that.”

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Since Aug. 1, the state Department of Health has not released the number of tests that have come back negative. The agency blames a technical issue with its data reporting system and has not given an estimate for when these tallies will be available again.
Since Aug. 1, the state Department of Health has not released the number of tests that have come back negative. The agency blames a technical issue with its data reporting system and has not given an estimate for when these tallies will be available again.

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