Orange County combined coronavirus test figures for weeks

A healthcare professional helps a driver waiting in line for a COVID-19 test at a drive-through testing.
A healthcare professional helps a driver waiting in line for a COVID-19 test at a drive-through testing site at the Westminster Mall on April 7.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The Orange County Health Care Agency combined the amount of diagnostic and antibody COVID-19 tests given in the area for several weeks, adding 30,000 tests looking for recovered cases of the pandemic coronavirus to the tests that reveal active infection.

Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau said the elevated test counts did not impact Orange County’s successful application to move into reopening in May, nor did the results ever factor in — just the number of tests given.

Combining the two test types, though, did inflate the denominator of a critical fraction in Orange County’s public understanding of the extent of the pandemic, and remained on the county’s official COVID-19 website for several more weeks, until the county overhauled the data presentation.

Chau said at a Thursday news conference that the state removes serology, or antibody, tests to calculate the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate — the number of positive active infections to number of tests given — needed to grant advanced Stage 2 reopening, which broadened retail and restaurant operations. The state’s threshold was 8% to reopen and remains that to stay open.

As of Thursday, the positivity rate is 12% and it hadn’t been below 8% since June 25.

With regional COVID-19 hospitalizations climbing, the state has decided to reactivate the Costa Mesa alternative care site, which was set to demobilize June 30.

Here’s how the erroneous data collection went down, explained Marc Meulman, Chief of Operations for county Public Health Services:

On April 28, the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange, or CalREDIE, enabled “auto-processing” of antibody tests. So from April 28-June 3, Orange County downloaded lab testing data that automatically included serology tests — blood tests for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies indicating that the body has fought the virus — with diagnostic tests that typically involve a nasal swab. Over that month-plus, the number of serology tests built up to about 30,000, continually reflecting in the “cumulative tests to date” column presented on the public-facing online dashboards updated daily.

Local health departments manually import the diagnostic tests into the state database so the local agencies can immediately take action based on the findings, Meulman said.

Meulman and Chau both said the results of those tests didn’t automatically come over and they are also not included in the current dashboard.

“Serology tests never should’ve been included as they are not an appropriate diagnostic test,” Meulman said. “This was an error, which is why they were removed when HCA leadership became aware of the issue.”

Meulman said the inclusion of serology tests when running the total tests report was a “process issue,” not a state error.

The county stopped downloading the combined testing totals on June 4 but didn’t remove the tests accumulated between April 28-June 3 until unveiling the new data pages, an extensive expansion of localized data, on June 26 so it could make all changes at one time, Meulman said.

Dozens turned out for a protest demanding improved safety protocols to guard against the risk of contracting COVID-19 at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital. The protest was organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Chau said health department “leadership” became aware of the erroneous data on June 3 but didn’t elaborate on who or how.

He apologized for the confusion.

“I guarantee I and my team will ensure that we will continue to do a better job to be more transparent with respect to the data that informs policy and personal health decisions of our residents,” he said.

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