System Glitch Leads to Backlog of 300,000 Covid Tests in California

People wait in line for coronavirus testing at Dodger Stadium on July 14, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Acknowledging the state’s overburdened reporting system failed county health departments for weeks, California officials on Friday said despite a backlog of as many as 350,000 coronavirus tests they remain confident in the state’s broader data and that the glitch can be quickly fixed.

“Our data system failed and that failure led to inaccurate case numbers and case positivity rates,” said California Health and Human Services chief Mark Ghaly.

The state’s infectious disease database backed up late last month, Ghaly said, and for a five-day stretch a large commercial lab was unable to log test results. Ghaly said he and Governor Gavin Newsom became aware of the backlog late Monday, hours after the governor touted statewide decreases in hospitalizations and new cases.

The fiasco is revealing an outdated software system buckling under the pressure of the pandemic at a time when counties are trying to figure out how and when they can start to reopen.

According to Ghaly, a server outage spurred the problem but that a fix has been identified and he estimates the backlog could be cleared in the next two days. He promised enhanced oversight over the existing program and said Newsom wants answers regarding the state’s latest tech debacle.   

“Simply put, the CalREDIE system was not built for this volume of data,” Ghaly highlighted. “The governor has directed a full investigation into what happened, and we will hold people accountable.”

Of the outstanding 250,000 to 350,000 test results from California’s 58 counties, Ghaly said it’s unclear how many are actually Covid-19 related as the system receives results for other infectious diseases. However, the glitch has not impacted the state’s running death, hospitalization and intensive care totals which Ghaly says are stabilizing.

The backlog has sparked other changes as well, including a temporary pause of the state’s coronavirus monitoring list.

Nearly 40 counties making up over 95% of the state’s population are on the watchlist, based on data including the number of new infections per 100,000 residents, test positivity rate and the change in hospitalization rate, among others. Counties placed on the list are prohibited from allowing indoor dining and shopping and can’t open schools unless they apply and receive a waiver from the state.

Ghaly told reporters the lack of updated and accurate data is problematic for counties trying to craft their own measures at the local level, and that as a result no counties are currently being added or subtracted to the list.

“We apologize, you deserve better, the governor demands better of us and we’re committed to doing better,” Ghaly said.

Critics didn’t miss the chance to rip the Democratic governor for sending out the state’s top doctor to break the bad news to reporters on Friday.

“On Monday Governor Newsom admitted our Covid case data has been wrong for weeks because of a ‘glitch.’ He hasn’t been seen since,” said Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley in a tweet.

Nationwide, California leads with over 541,000 confirmed cases, ahead of Florida (510,000) and Texas (484,000.) According to Johns Hopkins University, New Jersey and New York have registered the most deaths per 100,000 residents with 178 and 168, respectively. Reporting 142 new deaths, California joins New York and New Jersey as the only states with over death totals over 10,000. There are 5,932 Covid-19 hospitalizations and 1,345 patients in intensive care.

Ghaly’s admission follows a particularly bleak Thursday in Southern California, as not only did Los Angeles clear the 200,000 case mark — the most of any U.S. county — but neighboring Orange County announced a daily record of 32 deaths.

Many continue to disregard public health orders, and LA officials say they’ve received over 20,000 complaints of businesses along with reports of large private parties. According to LA County Public Health Department, 27 restaurants and 76 other businesses — including seven gyms — have been closed for not complying with the health order as of Thursday.

Younger Californians continue to contract and spread the virus at the highest rate, with residents between the ages of 18-34 making up over one-third of the state’s cases. Outbreaks have been traced to fraternity parties in Berkeley, while Los Angeles officials say they may resort to shutting off water to homes throwing large parties in the near future.

The data failure is already reverberating across the state and impacting counties’ pandemic responses. 

Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County health director, said that while he’s confident in Ghaly’s explanation, his county can’t realistically give schools the green light until it knows just how virulent the virus remains.

“The conversation can’t start until we know what our community case rate is,” Chau said of the plans already submitted by some schools.

The persistent number of new cases and deaths in the two counties has also sparked another closure of federal courts.

The Central District of California closed its all of its courthouses “until further notice” on Thursday. Jury trials are suspended and civil hearings will be conducted remotely.

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