State health officials report another backlog of positive COVID-19 cases

Metro counties now show heightened risk level, but it’s unclear if the backlog is the reason
December 2, 2020 Newnan - Picture shows new N95 grade mask (left) that utilizes a different filtration material and 3m N95 mask (right) at ThermoPore Materials Corporation, a plastics manufacturer, in Newnan on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. (Hyosub Shin /



December 2, 2020 Newnan - Picture shows new N95 grade mask (left) that utilizes a different filtration material and 3m N95 mask (right) at ThermoPore Materials Corporation, a plastics manufacturer, in Newnan on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. (Hyosub Shin /

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to say that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded Cobb County’s COVID-19 risk level rising from “low” on March 24 to “medium” on March 31.  A previous version said it was medium on March 24, but it was last at medium on March 10.

The Georgia Department of Public Health this week announced a laboratory failed to report thousands of positive COVID-19 test results from the height of the omicron variant surge earlier this year.

The first batch of 9,600 delayed positive cases were added to the state’s case logs Wednesday, and thousands more backlog continued to roll in Thursday. DPH said in a written statement that when the data was adjusted for the dates patients were tested, the new case numbers did not appear to change the current overall trend lines.

“There were errors in the reporting mechanisms the laboratory used to send test results to DPH that were beyond DPH’s control and required the laboratory to correct,” a spokeswoman for the DPH, Nancy Nydam, wrote in an email.

DPH did not name the lab responsible and didn’t explain how the backlog happened, where those tests were during the lag, or how they were discovered.

In general, Georgia’s case rates, along with the nation’s, have been declining. On Tuesday, Georgia had 565 confirmed and probable COVID cases reported as a seven-day rolling average. At the height of the omicron surge, in early January, the state was reporting on average about 20,000 new cases per day.

The majority of the missing cases were samples collected during January, DPH said. “Once all errors were addressed, we were able to receive those test results in our database and include those reports in our counts this week.”

The state Legislature recently voted to fund a multimillion dollar computer upgrade for DPH.

The problem is more one of public trust, said Amber Schmidtke, a public health data researcher who tracks Georgia’s pandemic data.

The news comes one month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new community risk level ratings — green, yellow and red — which is based in part on daily case counts. The highest level, red, would require a return to masking and other pandemic protocols.

As of this week, the CDC’s map showed Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties are now at a medium risk level or yellow status.

For all three counties, that’s a change. Last week, based on data from March 24, their levels were low, or green. The new data is dated March 31, right after the data dump. Neither the CDC nor DPH answered questions as to whether the risk was artificially increased with the new data, or whether the data dump had been factored out and the increased risk was based only on recent data.

The CDC’s recommended actions for people in medium risk counties include speaking with one’s doctor about whether to wear a mask.

The CDC is working with states to remove data that is reported as backlogs, so old data won’t change their current risk status, Nydam said.

“It’s frustrating in a certain way,” Schmidtke said, “because here we are more than two years into this; we really shouldn’t be having these continued data dumps. And certainly not on this scale.”

“I think there is a risk here that we’re having a damage in trust because of this event,” she said. “You know, we’re telling people to trust the website” by the CDC, with color codes for community COVID levels. “We’re telling people to trust that color coding - and right now we’re telling them, don’t trust that information.”

She emphasized, however, that it was reassuring that once the problem emerged, DPH acknowledged it publicly.

Nydam stated that problems with data reporting are nationwide, and are one reason the CDC’s formula includes a variety of data points, not just a county’s new case rate. She said CDC is working with states to remove backlogs.

She added that DPH’s public website allows people to see case trends graphed not just by date of report but also by date of onset, which would show accurate trends.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory University professor, physician and epidemiologist, agreed that it was good the record was being corrected. “I’m glad putting out there instead of not,” he said. The problem, he added, was “It creates confusion.”