Shortcomings of North Carolina’s communicable disease reporting requirements are among many lessons learned so far during the coronavirus pandemic.
To some extent this is understandable, considering the many unprecedented aspects of the pandemic. It doesn’t mean these shortcomings are excusable and should not be addressed in a timely manner.
The state requires that only certain types of businesses or institutions report COVID-19 outbreaks or clusters to local health departments. These are congregate living facilities like nursing homes and prisons, day care centers and schools.
(The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services says at least two lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases at a location is an outbreak and at least five is a cluster.)
Dr. Mandy Cohen, DHHS secretary, on Monday acknowledged the reporting inconsistencies and said this can result in local public health staff having to do detective work through tracing. Cohen urged other types of businesses to report instances of two or more COVID-19 cases to local health departments and said some do this.
DHHS reports counties with outbreaks at meat processing facilities like the Tyson Foods Inc. complex in Wilkesboro, but doesn’t publicly identify the companies or numbers of confirmed cases.
Although the Wilkes County Health Department publicly acknowledged in May that there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the Tyson Foods complex in Wilkesboro, DHHS still will only identify counties with COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants. DHHS officials said several times in May that the agency was considering announcing names of meat processing plants with COVID-19 outbreaks, but never did.
Inconsistent reporting of COVID-19 data by hospitals in North Carolina has made it hard to gauge the status of the pandemic.
Hospitals, private medical practices and other health care facilities in North Carolina must report the number of positive COVID-19 cases to public health officials.
Because the number of people tested for COVID-19 doesn’t have to be reported, some but not all of these facilities report this information. In counties (including Wilkes) where not all facilities report the numbers tested, it’s impossible to know percentages testing positive.
A survey of counties by six newsrooms across the state in April found that while the COVID-19 patient count was dropping statewide, so was the number of hospitals responding to a DHHS daily survey used to tally hospitalizations, bed usage and ventilator stocks.
When about 25 more hospitals finally submitted their numbers, the hospitalized patient total rose by more than 100. It was the largest increase since state officials began publishing the data.
The News and Observer in Raleigh reported that an analysis of limited data from the state found significant gaps in survey responses, sometimes from the state’s largest hospitals.
Inconsistencies in reporting requirements infringe on civil liberties by reducing people’s ability to make informed decisions in their behavioral response to health threats like COVID-19.
State government efforts to ensure transparency should at least be proportional to the many ways basic rights have been denied during the coronavirus pandemic.