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County, State Not Seeing Eye To Eye On COVID Case Rate Calculation

Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten speaks at a San Diego County news conference on the coronavirus, March 19, 2020.
Zoë Meyers
Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten speaks at a San Diego County news conference on the coronavirus, March 19, 2020.

San Diego County and California state health officials are disagreeing over a key metric used to determine when restrictions — intended to prevent the spread of coronavirus — will lift on the region’s businesses and schools.

A county spokesman confirmed Friday that local and state officials are not reaching the same number for the region’s rate of new cases of the virus.

County, State Not Seeing Eye To Eye On COVID Case Rate Calculation
Listen to this story by Tarryn Mento.

The health agencies are having ongoing conversations to work out the issue as they are also rectifying how many cases in the county may have been undercounted due to a statewide reporting glitch.

The state requires counties to keep the rate of new cases over a 14-day period to no more than 100 per 100,000 residents, but San Diego’s rose above that in early July. That triggered governor-ordered closures of indoor operations at many establishments and blocked most county classrooms from reopening.

The county reported slight fluctuations with the case rate but overall it continued to rise last month before it recently began a steady decline.

Yet on Thursday, the county started reporting two figures for the region’s case rate on its website: one calculated by the county, 110.1 per 100,000, and another based on the state’s calculation, which was 112.4. By its online update Friday, the difference shrank to a minuscule one-tenth.

The reporting changes came after KPBS on Wednesday asked officials during a county news conference about the difference between its locally reported case rate and what was displayed on the state’s website. At that time, the county reported the local case rate was 105.7 per 100,000 residents, but the state’s website put the figure at 134.2.

However, the state health department’s public affairs office later clarified in an email that the 134.2 figure on the state’s website represented the case rate for July 30. On that date, the county had reported a case rate of 134.4 — a minor difference.

The state website has been frozen while officials evaluate how many cases may have gone undercounted due to the state reporting glitch.

San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten on Wednesday said she could not explain the difference with the state’s figure but would provide details on the county’s calculation in an email.

“We are aligning with the state but it depends on what point in time and again, I have not looked at the state’s website today, but again, we can show you and provide information as to how we calculated the numbers and how it aligns with the state,” Wooten said.

The county has not provided that detailed explanation, but on Friday, Communications Director Michael Workman said staff is still working on it while also addressing the local impact of the statewide reporting glitch.

“It is not a simple task,” Workman said in a text message. “At the same time, the same people are working on the state testing and reporting problem, which is the priority.”

He confirmed local and state officials are reaching different conclusions regarding the case rate.

“Your state assessment is accurate. We’re not on the same page. That is being worked on as well,” Workman said.

Earlier Friday, California's Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly told KPBS during a media teleconference that his office is talking with local officials amid the recent technical problem that could’ve caused misreporting of COVID test results, but they are also working out the discrepancy in the case rate.

“We have planned conversations with San Diego County about the data to make sure that we not only agree on the number, agree on the metrics and how we calculate those,” Ghaly said.

Additionally, he said the statewide glitch has since been fixed and California officials are now communicating with counties to make sure all cases are accurately counted. Ghaly said that process could take two days.