Empower Wisconsin | July 24, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — It appears there’s some fuzzy math coming out of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 testing data, a problem that other states are dealing with as case numbers continue to swell nationally.
Multiple sources tell Empower Wisconsin they or someone they know have encountered errors in testing results.
In one case, a couple told a southern Wisconsin nurse that they “tested positive” for COVID-19 even though they didn’t take the test. They had waited in a long line for free testing and ultimately decided to back out before getting swabbed.
“They received letters in the mail notifying them of their POSITIVE result. When they said they didn’t take the test, they were told that some paperwork must have gotten screwed up,” a source, who asked not to be identified, told Empower Wisconsin.
A source tells Empower Wisconsin that a Badger State hospital erroneously diagnosed an individual with COVID-19, despite the fact that the patient repeatedly tested negative. The individual successfully sued the hospital after finding the positive test in her medical files a short time later.
In another case, an individual reported having tested positive for COVID-19 only to test negative in a subsequent test.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services notes that some people are counted as a “COVID-19 probable case” if they are not positive by a confirmatory laboratory test, but have a combination of other factors. They may exhibit symptoms, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath, or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. Individuals who have traveled to an area experiencing sustained, higher number of COVID-19 also may be determined to be a “probable case.”
How widespread are the errors? Are they enough to artificially inflate coronavirus numbers that have spiked in recent weeks?
Empower Wisconsin asked the Department of Health Services if officials there had been notified of false test results or other such incidents of “screwed up” paperwork. DHS did not return emails seeking comment.
As of Wednesday, DHS reported 44,847 people have tested positive, an increase of 712 from the previous day. There were a total of 865 deaths, seven more from Tuesday. Overall, 764,630 people had tested negative. The numbers were down from Monday, which saw the “largest single-day increases in new cases” in Wisconsin, according to DHS’ Stephanie Smiley.
“A note: there are 7 deaths reported today. However, 1 death was incorrectly reported to us yesterday. That has been subtracted from the total,” the agency tweeted.
Today's increase in #COVID19_WI cases is not as large as yesterday's. A note: there are 7 deaths reported today. However, 1 death was incorrectly reported to us yesterday. That has been subtracted from the total. Learn more about how deaths are reported: https://t.co/3WmxIaBc1c pic.twitter.com/CnjFJcEPmo
— WIDeptHealthServices (@DHSWI) July 22, 2020
False positives and errors in COVID testing are popping up elsewhere, perhaps none more so than Florida. The Sunshine State posted 173 deaths on Thursday, the largest single-day figure thus far. Positive cases topped 10,200, as the state deals with some of the highest COVID-19 incidents in the nation.
It’s also experienced growing reports of false test results. Fox 35 in Florida reports some residents who went to get tested and left before they were swabbed have been listed as having COVID-19.
“For that to come back positive, when there was no specimen submitted, is problematic, so I’ve heard it enough to be concerned about it,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said this week.
Other news organizations in Florida have received similar complaints.
“People have said they submitted their contact information at a COVID-19 testing site, but after seeing how long the line was, they decided not to wait an hour or more to get the test. Nevertheless, a few days later, they got an email or a phone call telling them that they tested positive,” Fox 4 reported this week.
More broadly, there have also been questions about Florida state health officials’ reporting of positive cases.
As USA Today reported last week, “The Florida Department of Health in its daily COVID-19 report lists multiple laboratories throughout the state – many of them small testing sites – with 100% positivity rates.”
Southwest Florida’s dominant hospital system, however said it is incorrect to say 100% of their labs are positive.
“The Lee Health hospital system is reporting that its laboratory testing of potential COVID-19 cases has shown an overall positivity rate of about 18%, despite the state report showing that all people coming in for testing at some of its labs have the novel coronavirus,” the news outlet reported.
In Connecticut, 90 out of 144 people tested between June 15 and July 17, many of whom of are nursing home residents, received false positive COVID-19 tests, according to the New York Post. The errors stemmed from a flaw in the state public health laboratory’s test, NBC Connecticut reported. .
At the University of Kentucky, a software flaw led to about 26 false positive tests, according to the Lexington Herald Leader.
Earlier this month the federal Food and Drug Administration warned of an increased risk of false positive results from certain COVID-19 tests.
Health officials insist the flaws and misreports in testing certainly aren’t widespread and shouldn’t override concerns about the significant increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths across the country. There have been more than 4.1 million cases reported in the U.S., with more than 146,000 deaths.
But as Wisconsin Spotlight has reported, the numbers get a little murky when considering the high rates of co-morbidity — or multiple health complications — involved in the deaths. There also have been reports of double counting, or COVID-19 deaths counted in the individual’s place of residence and in the city or community in which he died.
Taken together, the discrepancies raise some serious questions, said state Sen. Andre Jacque.
“Certainly we know there are issues with the accounting of COVID-19 statistics in the first place,” said the De Pere Republican, who also serves on the Senate’s Health Committee. “I’m not surprised that there have been issues with the testing and the results and the reporting of the results. That was a concern myself and several of my colleagues had, not getting the full information we needed as policymakers.”