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Data room churns out covid-19 stats seven days a week

Data team at the Department of Public Health works to collect, record and report information on covid-19 infections. Data team at the Department of Public Health works to collect, record and report information on covid-19 infections.

Henderson County public health employees are working seven days a week in a "data room" to acquire, compile and report information supporting the ongoing effort to track the spread of covid-19, Public Health Director Steve Smith told the Board of Health this week.

Smith noted that there has been "intense interest from the community about our trends and interpretation," according to notes the director prepared for the meeting and shared with the Hendersonville Lightning. Nine public health staffers are working in the "data room" four or five at a time with 63 long-term care facilities and 18 laboratories on testing and reporting. The public health department administered 130 tests on Wednesday.

"There is not a shared electronic platform among organizations and labs, so these are manually entered into a spreadsheet which feeds our dashboard," said health department spokeswoman Jodi Grabowski.

Henderson County has been one of the top hot spots in the state for covid-19 cases and deaths among residents of long-term care facilities. The state Department of Health and Human Services reported on its covid-19 dashboard that Henderson County had 186 cases and 32 deaths associated with long-term care facilities. Of the total cases, 152 were residents or patients and all the deaths were residents or patients.

People have noticed discrepancies in the numbers reported by the county and the state. Differences are expected to continue, Smith said, give "the volume of data and complexity of multiple systems," including the North Carolina Electronic Disease and Surveillance System.

"The data will match up as corrections are made, but the timing of reporting will often result in the numbers being different," Grabowski said.

The county had been withholding the names of facilities based on guidance from the DHHS, medical confidentiality statutes, the federal HIPAA patient privacy law and an interpretation from the UNC School of Government.

The state reversed course on the question, creating "an exception that it now believes is appropriate for reporting this information," Smith told the board.

Nurses answering an information hotline notify patients of test results, coordinate contact tracing for positive cases and provide guidance for congregant care settings and the general public. The department is working now on training contracted contact tracers as part of a state program called the Carolina Community Tracing Initiative. The county emergency management office and rescue squad are doing "proactive assessments" and making visits to long-term care facilities to meet their needs.

Public information will become even more important as the state starts to ease stay-at-home restrictions. Individuals and businesses seeking clarity about state guidelines are already peppering the hotline nurses with "questions about what is or is not allowed."

Upcoming challenges in the covid-19 response, Smith said, include:

  • How to expand diagnostic testing not only for targeted needs but for the general population to make "a more valid" analysis of the prevalence of covid-19.
  • How to incorporate antibody testing to assess the prevalance.
  • Coordinating the overall response to avoid duplication and best leverage our collective resources.
  • Support the community transition as restrictions ease, managing the health department covid-19 response "while returning to some level of normalcy for our own traditional services."