In a stunning development, Santa Barbara County officials announced Friday that they have underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths — by 28 — during the past month.
Up until Friday, the county had reported a total of 32 COVID-19 deaths.
But Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, the county’s public health director, said at a press briefing that there have been at least 28 more COVID-19 deaths.
Data managers and data investigators entered COVID-19 data incorrectly into the database, Do-Reynoso said.
Officials with the vital records department noticed there was a discrepancy between the deaths reported on the county’s website and the number of death certificates the Vital Records Department was receiving.
“Unfortunately, we have a serious data problem,” said Gregg Hart, chairman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. “For the past month, the Public Health Department has underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths in Santa Barbara County.”
Twenty of the new deaths were from hospitals, Do-Reynoso said, adding that 22 were Latinos and six were white.
The county also reported 72 new COVID-19 cases on Friday.
In a bit of good news, the number of new COVID-19 cases reported this week was 29 percent lower than the week prior. Intensive care unit hospitalizations also have dropped about 3.2 percent from the week prior.
The COVID-19 death reporting problem was identified on Wednesday, and officials attributed the error to a switch from the manual process to an online reporting system.
“This delay in reporting happened because of process error as we transitioned from a manual process for disease investigation to a state, Cal-Connect platform for an investigation and contract tracing,” Do-Reynoso said. “To rectify this going forward, we have established improved processes to ensure accurate COVID-19 death counts.”
She said that instead of relying on the CalREDIE or Cal-Connect databases, “we will be reporting deaths directly from death certificates as they become available.”
With the new way of counting fatalities, she said, death reporting will likely be delayed for processing time. In cases where the death is in the hands of the coroner to determine the cause, reporting could take several months, Do-Reynoso said.
“Our goal is to fully be transparent in reporting and sharing of information, and to continue to improve our systems of reporting,” Do-Reynoso said. “Additional data experts will be joining our team in the very near future to assist in the data quality, data integrity efforts.”
She further explained that the error in death reporting came from having “an incredible amount of cases to investigate.”
She said there are about five contacts that health officials have to make with each COVID-19 positive case. With the jump in numbers in the early part of July, the number became too large to track.
“It’s a system, it’s a process, and of course, with any process, it involves human errors, it involves humans, it involves team effort,” Do-Reynoso said.
“The county is committed to providing accurate, timely and transparent information,” Hart said, adding that “the scale of this tragedy is growing every day.”
Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s public health officer, did attempt to report some more positive news. He said the case rate per 100,000 members of the population dropped on Friday for the first time in several weeks. He said the county’s goal at this point is to reduce the case rate to below 100.
“Getting community transmission down will allow us to open our schools, but we must act now,” Ansorg said.
Ansorg then reiterated the importance of social distancing.
“It is most important that we stay with our immediate household members only, and that we keep social distance when not at home, as well as wear face masks in public places and at work wash our hands regularly,” Ansorg said.
Ansorg then said the power was in people’s hand to stop the virus, making a comparison to March and April, when cases began to drop, but did not acknowledge that what’s different now is that restaurants can offer outside dinning, several blocks of State Street in Santa Barbara are now closed to cars and open to pedestrians, some of whom are not wearing masks, and there is no stay-at-home-order in place.
“Not giving the virus any chances to multiply and infect others is in our power,” Ansorg said. “We all know what we need to do. We have done it before in March and April, and I am confident we can do it again.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.