Reporting error in COVID testing data: How much does it matter?

When it comes to tracking COVID-19, it’s all about the numbers. They’re what government officials rely on to make policy decisions. They’re what everyday Americans turn to when trying to wrap their heads around the current state of the pandemic. They’re what hospitals and health care institutions look at when forecasting critical shortages. And they’re an important indicator of how well – or how poorly – preventative measures like social distancing and masks are actually working.

So when one of the nation’s biggest testing companies was off by nearly 200,000 in its reported numbers, it was a big “oops”.

What happened?

The reporting error involved the total number of COVID tests performed in North Carolina. The testing company at fault – LabCorp – accidentally included in its reports roughly 200,000 take-home COVID tests that were used out of state (but processed in North Carolina).

The state Department of Health and Human Services caught the error when reviewing a discrepancy between the company’s manually reported numbers and its electronic data. Instead of 2 million tests, as previously tallied, the actual number was around 1.85 million.

What about the other core metrics?

Despite the error, key metrics for monitoring the pandemic’s impact in North Carolina remain unaffected. The positive test rate remains high – currently, 7 percent. Nearly 150,000 people statewide have tested positive, and more than 2,300 have died. Over the last month, the daily hospitalization rate has remained fairly stable at around 1,000 patients statewide.

While these numbers illustrate that COVID is still a clear threat, the reporting error will undoubtedly serve as ammunition for COVID-deniers who are quick to mistrust the data.

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