Some states are reporting incomplete COVID-19 results, blurring the full picture

Several states are reporting only positive COVID-19 test results from private labs, a practice that paints a misleading picture of how fast the disease is spreading.

Several states are reporting only positive COVID-19 test results from private labs, a practice that paints a misleading picture of how fast the disease is spreading.

Maryland, Ohio and others are posting the numbers of new positive tests and deaths, for instance, but don’t report the negative results, which would help show how many people were tested overall.

“This matters because it gives you a false sense of what is going on in a particular location,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. He said states should be required to report both positive and negative results for review by public health experts.

“They should all be pulled together,” Topol said. “It should be automatic.”

Many states display a more comprehensive picture of their pandemic data, including the total numbers of tests run and those yielding negative results.

The COVID Tracking Project, a private effort to collect testing information nationwide, has found at least nine states that have reported complete results only from state labs, or are missing some reports on negative results.

Melanie Amato, press secretary for the Ohio Department of Health, said her state is collecting only positive test results as many private labs have begun testing residents. As of Tuesday afternoon, the state reported 564 confirmed cases, 145 hospitalizations and eight deaths on its website.

“We don’t require private labs to report negative labs in any infectious disease,” she said. Asked if that policy might change, she said: “That is a discussion for later down the road.”

Similarly, the Maryland Department of Health “is currently reporting the number of positive cases only. We are working on a process to provide timely testing number data,” the department told KHN in a statement, adding: “We will provide additional information as soon as it is available.” As of Tuesday afternoon, the state was reporting 349 confirmed cases.

In states that do report all test results, the rate of infections varies widely, with some reporting 5% or fewer tests as positive, while others confirm the virus in 10% or more of specimens. The results can change by the day. As of Tuesday, Utah reported 298 confirmed cases out of 5,823 tested, or about 5% positives. Officials noted that some results may have a lag time of up to 72 hours.

Florida officials had conducted 10,338 tests as of Sunday, of which 1,007 were positive, for a rate just under 10%. Florida officials said they partnered with commercial labs to “increase the number of tests conducted each day and ensure Floridians receive the critical health information they need in a timely manner.”

As of Monday afternoon, hard-hit Washington state had reported 2,221 positive test results and 31,712 negatives, for a positive rate of 7%. The state also reported 110 deaths.

Having a more complete picture in those states that limit reporting “could provide useful information of tracking transmission and timing,” said Charles Root, a veteran laboratory consultant in Chicago.

The U.S Surgeon General’s Office on Sunday tweeted: “not all labs are reporting yet (or promptly), but the ones that do, report that 90% of tests (which are usually people exposed or w/ symptoms) are #COVID19 negative. That means even among the highest risk people, most don’t have #coronavirus…”

It’s unclear how federal authorities are adjusting to underreporting of negative tests, which could blur what’s actually happening across the country.

On Monday, the White House task force took steps to ramp up nationwide reporting.

“We also reminded the governors today that all state laboratories, all hospital laboratories are now required by law to report the results of coronavirus tests to the CDC,” Vice President Mike Pence said, according to a transcript of the White House briefing.

Topol said the nation wasted precious time by not marshaling the resources to test large numbers of people over the past two months -- and tallying all results.

“We should be doing a massive screening, a million people randomly by age and gender to get our arms around it,” he said. “If we do that, we would get answers. Until then, we don’t have any clue. It is all very fuzzy.”

Complicating things further, criteria for testing people have changed as COVID-19 cases soared. At a New Jersey drive-thru testing site on Monday, an electronic sign flashed the message: “No symptoms. No Test.” Other areas have allowed doctors to order tests when people suspect they might have been in contact with someone who had the disease.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says: “Not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19.”

The CDC also notes that most people have mild illness and will recover at home, adding “there is no treatment specifically approved for this virus.”

Decisions about testing “are at the discretion of state and local health departments and/or individual clinicians,” it says. The agency notes that older adults and individuals with chronic medical conditions and/or an immunocompromised state may be at “higher risk for poor outcomes.”

And as the disease has spread, hard-hit areas have asked that tests be reserved for people in the hospital and health care workers, both to ensure they can stay on the job and to conserve protective gear.

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a tweet last week noted that the nationwide 10% figure for positive test results is “significantly higher” than in the United Kingdom, South Korea and China.

“Until we see the positivity rate decline significantly, we are still not screening enough,” Gottlieb wrote.

This article was first posted by Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.