Sullivan Co. COVID-19 rates ‘artificially high’ due to data reporting delays, health department official says

Local Coronavirus Coverage

SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Sullivan County’s reported COVID-19 positivity rates may be reflecting some cases from back in December and January. This is due to delays with some case and testing data being reported into computer databases, according to a health department official.

As the percentage of COVID-19 tests returning positive drops for much of Northeast Tennessee, Sullivan County’s reported positivity rate appears as an outlier at 13.2%.

Meanwhile, the 7-day average of new daily COVID cases per 100,000 people for Sullivan County is at 18.9, well above the average of rates for other Northeast Tennessee counties.

This is even as Sullivan County lags most other counties in the region in daily testing.

Speaking to News Channel 11 on Monday, Dr. Stephen May of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department said the current numbers were “artificially high” due to delays in some case reporting.

“I suspect that our numbers are probably closer to the surrounding region. It’s just that we’ve got data going in that has been delayed,” he said.

May said some of the data being reported now may reflect some December and January cases, when the virus was peaking in the county. He said there were several reasons for the delayed reporting into national databases.

In one case, a laboratory the county works with was not reporting data directly into the computer system as it should have.

“It’s one of those things where it was working once, it quit working. And now we’ve discovered it and are trying to fix it,” said May.

Additionally, May said there were issues with entering antigen reporting done in multiple community areas into the NBS system. The NBS system is a national computer database used by health departments in Tennessee to register case and testing information.

May said there have also been a few long-term care facilities in the county not reporting data on time, but said he didn’t currently have information as to why.

“We had a facility that was way behind in reporting a lot of their cases and testing data. So that has skewed the numbers just recently,” he said.

All these factors have resulted in some older cases being reflected in newly-released case numbers.

“The computer counts it on the day that it was entered, not necessarily on the day it happened,” said May.

County positivity rates make a difference to those waiting to see loved ones living in long-term care facilities. Federal CMS guidelines say if a county’s 7-day average test positivity rate is higher than 10% – visitation is not allowed.

May said the health department has been working to correct the delays in reporting.

“It’s been a little bit of a nightmare. We should have this corrected hopefully by the end of the week,” he said.

With the delays in data reporting, Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable is also skeptical about the timing of some of the numbers.

“It’s quite disturbing that we don’t have yesterday’s data, today. I do have confidence in the numbers we’re given, it’s just a matter of timing,” he said.

Sullivan is currently the only county in Northeast Tennessee with a mask mandate still in place. Venable said what matters most to him and his decision-making for the county is a sustained pattern of reduction in case numbers.

“Until we get the data that arrives late, until it gets down to where we are, I’m not going to put a lot of stock in what the daily average is,” he said.

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