In May, when Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the Department of State Health Services would be handling all COVID-19 case investigations for counties like Collin, Denton, and Wise, Texans let out a collective sigh on social media. As one person pointed out recently on Collin County Judge Chris Hill’s Facebook page: 

“We all knew we wouldn’t get accurate and true information anymore.” 

Filled with mistakes and errors, the inaccurate reporting has gotten so bad that Collin County commissioners were forced to address it Monday afternoon at commissioners court where commissioners considered possibly removing the county’s COVID-19 dashboard entirely from the web.

Instead of removing the dashboard, commissioners decided to include the following warning on the website: 

Warning: Collin County is providing COVID-19 numbers and data as a convenience to our residents. However, because we have been made aware of inaccuracies in the Department of State Health Services’ reporting, we must advise residents that Collin County has no confidence in the data currently being provided to us. 

Hill once had confidence in Gov. Abbott and how the state was handling the COVID-19 outbreak. Whereas Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins took a more restrictive approach by shutting down nonessential businesses in March, Hill considered all businesses in Collin County to be essential to the county’s financial health. He decided to rely on the state’s guidance and refused to execute stricter executive orders to help contain the spread of the virus, which seem to be working according to DSHS numbers. 

“Unfortunately, the reports and case totals continue to be plagued by mistakes and errors,” Hill posted Tuesday on Facebook. “The Commissioners Court is 100% certain that the COVID-19 data being reported for Collin County is inaccurate.” 

Part of the reason for the inaccurate reporting is because DSHS wasn’t set up to handle the “data dump” of test results from labs all across Texas, Lara Anton, a spokesperson for DSHS, told Texas Tribune in an Aug. 14 report. “So we started to have a backlog.”

DSHS reported this backlog on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. 

“Several commercial laboratories have submitted backlogs of test results to DSHS this week. As the backlogged test results are added to the electronic reporting system, some counties are receiving notification of COVID positive results that were previously diagnosed but not reported to the local health department at the time the test was completed. For this reason, the statewide confirmed case counts and some county case counts will include some older cases over the next few days. DSHS works daily with laboratories to facilitate reporting to ensure local jurisdictions receive timely laboratory reports.  Patients were notified at the time of diagnosis through a separate process.”  

Anton told the Tribune that DSHS had upgraded the maximum capacity of the lab reporting system from about 48,000 cases per day to more than 100,000 per day.  

The Tribune pointed out that as of Aug. 18, DSHS has reported nearly 5 million tests have been given, but it isn’t an accurate depiction of the spread because some people are being tested more than once. This number also doesn’t include pending test results. 

The upgraded system wasn’t the only change made. In late July, DSHS officials reported that they had also improved how they were counting fatalities. They’d been previously counting it based on what local and regional health departments were reporting when they notified them and verified the death. They claimed the length of time to process this information varied by jurisdiction and wasn’t providing “timely demographic information on most fatalities.” 

“[Now] a fatality is counted as due to COVID-19 when the medical certifier, usually a doctor with direct knowledge of the patient, determines COVID-19 directly caused the death,” DSHS officials pointed out in a July 27 press release. “This method does not include deaths of people who had COVID-19 but died of an unrelated cause. Death certificates are required by law to be filed within 10 days.”

As of Aug. 19, 54 percent of COVID-19 fatalities are among Hispanics, according to DSHS.

Last weekend, the state informed county officials about the spike in numbers due to the backlog of more than 1,500 cases from March, April, and May, according to Collin County Commissioner Susan Fletcher’s newsletter.

“Naturally, when these numbers were added to the county and state dashboards, this caused a spike in the numbers being reported, which also resulted in tremendous concern and confusion by the public,” Fletcher pointed out. “We were also told that the state system would be offline for maintenance, and we would likely see zero cases for a day or two, further adding to the inaccuracy of the situation.  To add insult to injury, the court was informed that the state is not focusing on reporting the ‘recovered’ cases, which has resulted in inaccurate reporting for ‘active’ cases and the current infection rate being artificially inflated due to the state’s lack of reporting these cases.

“The state’s reasoning was that it was focusing on the active cases, which is understandable, except that if you don’t take out the recovered numbers from the number you’re reporting as ‘active’ – you’re misleading everyone about the number of current people who are truly actively infected.”

Fletcher claimed you could see the “trend line” of recovered cases flattening around July 1 where a signifcant drops occurs.

At the commissoners court meeting Monday, a motion was made to remove the state’s inaccurate data from the website, but Fletcher said she worried that the public would be confused and concerned. She suggested that they provide a disclaimer on the website, informing the public about the issue.

“So for now, we are left with reporting data that we know is inaccurate,” Fletcher wrote.  “And who’s to say that there won’t be another ‘backlog’ of files that will be released?  The Commissioners Court was very clear on Monday that it is literally IMPOSSIBLE to make sound policy decisions with inaccurate information. We were also very clear that we do not want to report data that we know is not accurate, but we’ve decided to pass along the state’s data, with a disclaimer. We know many will be very frustrated, just as we are, but we must act in good faith, transparency, and inform the public regarding the issues with the information we are providing on our website.”

On Tuesday, Gov. Abbott briefly addressed the inaccurate reporting by DSHS at a press conference in Fort Worth, where he spent most of the time discussing legislation they plan to introduce in the next session to prevent cities like Austin from defunding the police and turning into lawless cities like Portland and Seattle. 

“The challenges with the COVID backlog are largely a part of history,” Gov. Abbott told reporters, according to an Aug. 18 video shared by NBC News. “There were several reasons for the backlog. One is the capabilities of the Department of State Health Services were limited in accepting no more than 45,000 test cases per day. They have worked with a team to ensure that that was increased four or five fold. Because of that limitation of 45,000 per day, it meant that there were hundreds of thousands (cases) that did not get timely logged. 

“Separate from that, there has been an ongoing legacy based issue of private testers that were running tests, private labs, such as Quest labs, for example, that were extremely slow getting test results back, taking sometimes one to two weeks. There was an announcement by Quest labs today that they have now solved their problems. And they will be turning around results in one to two days as opposed to one to two weeks. 

“State-based labs as well as state-affiliated medical centers such as UT Southwestern in Dallas, such as medical centers in Houston, San Antonio, and elsewhere are working with the state to make sure that the state has a turnaround of one to two days with regard to test results. 

“The bottom line is this, for another few days, there could be some numbers adjustments that are coming in but the problems underlying that have now been solved. I have greater confidence today than I’ve ever had in their ability to make sure that they are fully capable of accounting for all tests and test results and reporting very accurate results.”

Christian McPhate

Christian McPhate is the managing editor of Local Profile. He has been working as a journalist for more than a decade. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Dallas Morning News,...