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Knowledge is power in crisis

In my last column, I talked about the fog of war when it comes to the coronavirus. That’s why more, not less, information is needed from the state on not just positive cases, but the state seems content peddling information that in some cases is two days old.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources started updating the public on coronavirus testing on March 7, both through press releases and through a coronavirus website. At first, it was only reporting cases processed at the DHHR Lab in South Charleston, but as more hospitals and commercial labs started offering testing, the positive and negative test totals were included in DHHR numbers released daily.

The process works like this: a hospital gets a positive or negative coronavirus test back, the hospital reports those numbers to the local county health department. From there, the health department reports those numbers to DHHR, who then conducts an investigation to verify. Once verified, those numbers are then released to the press and posted on the coronavirus website every evening. According to the coronavirus website, commercial labs report directly to DHHR.

On one hand, you’ve got to give it to DHHR for being thorough (more on that in a minute). You certainly don’t want to have bad data out there before it is confirmed and verified. But there are some issues that I see.

First, county health departments are reporting coronavirus positives on their own. Sometimes this is through their websites, through press releases, or by phone calls by reporters checking their beats. In many cases, the numbers being reported locally are widely different than what DHHR posts at the end of the day.

Dr. Cathy Slemp, the state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health, said last week there is a lag between what data counties report to DHHR, the DHHR investigation, and when DHHR updates those numbers at the end of the day. For example, the total numbers of positives coming out of the Sundale nursing home in Morgantown lagged as much as 24 hours before the official DHHR count. For cases coming out of Kanawha County, that delay was nearly 48 hours.

I understand DHHR wanting to investigate further, especially to track down people who might have been exposed. But if the local county health departments are reporting these cases as positives, there’s no reason why DHHR can’t. And if DHHR feels uncomfortable with reporting this data until the t’s are crossed, they can tell the county health departments to not release the data until DHHR confirms it and releases it.

I’m not saying DHHR should do that, but state officials are acting like they have no power over county health departments. According to state code, Slemp as state health officer and public health commissioner very much has that authority. Either DHHR needs to exercise that authority or they need to add the county numbers when they are reported through their system.

It’s not as if the current system is perfect. The other day, a positive case in Hancock County had to be removed because the person was a resident of Jefferson County, Ohio. Preston County had a similar issue. And Friday, DHHR even reported the state’s first coronavirus death, until it turned out the person wasn’t dead.

In that case, according to WAJR, the Sundale nursing home reported the death directly to DHHR based on a social media post. DHHR then put out a press release. Now, no doubt that the nursing home created the butterfly effect here, but I thought there was a process for how positive tests, negative tests, and even deaths are reported?

Wouldn’t the hospital have to report any coronavirus-related death to the county health department, who then reports it to DHHR? There are a lot of rules for nursing homes under Chapter 16 of state code dealing with public health, but I saw nothing about the nursing home being required to report deaths of residents directly to DHHR. Gov. Jim Justice was angry about it Friday and is requiring DHHR to confirm death information twice before releasing it.

Slemp and DHHR Secretary Bill J. Crouch have not been happy with multiple news outlets asking about the lag in coronavirus testing data. Slemp doesn’t appear to think it’s important for the public and press to have that data as quickly as we might like. She’d rather people focus on the important things, like self-quarantine, social distance, hand washing, etc. Why can’t both things be important?

The new coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, said it’s too soon to say whether the stay-home executive order is flattening the curve and slowing the virus. But he has said that positive cases make up about 5 percent of total cases, which he sees as a good sign. My crunching of the numbers confirms this. I’ve been charting the growth in positive cases and it shows a slow and steady upward trend, but not a skyrocketing jump. That is also good and a sign that we need to keep staying at home and social distancing from others.

I’d rather have the DHHR website have to add or subtract a case from a county then have DHHR report numbers that are 48 hours old by the time they’re posted. More information and data can show that we need to keep flattening the curve.

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