Coronavirus file photo stock of nurse

In this March 13, 2020, file photo, a nurse at a drive-up coronavirus testing station wears a face shield and other protective gear as she waits by a tent in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor has issued a report debunking a theory that the state Health Department is inflating its coronavirus numbers by double-counting people with positive test results, calling the state’s data “generally correct.”

Several rural parish officials and conservative talk radio hosts have alleged in recent weeks that the Louisiana Department of Health’s tally of coronavirus cases--more than 127,000 as of Thursday--was erroneously high. They claimed to have proof, pointing to lists of positive coronavirus patients local officials received from the state that included duplicates and didn’t match up with the state’s count.

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Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, who runs the government auditing and accountability agency, said after a review of the lists and data, those claims were unfounded. While a small number of duplicates may exist at any given time on the state’s dashboard--something the Health Department has long acknowledged--Purpera said the agency does a good job of removing them and posting largely accurate tallies.

“It looked to us like they had a really good system to get them (duplicates) out of there,” he said.

Purpera said his agency is embarking on a more comprehensive review of the state's data that will be completed in the coming months. 

The issue centered around lists of patients that parish leaders started receiving early in the pandemic to help their first responders know when to prepare for a visit to a coronavirus-positive patient. For months, the Health Department took test results from labs and sent reports to the Louisiana State Police, which then processed the information and sent it to the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association or the governor’s emergency agency to send to parishes.

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Leaders of Red River and DeSoto parishes started poring over the names on the list--something the Louisiana Department of Health has since warned is a violation of patient privacy laws--to cross check the state’s official tally of cases. They found that the lists were short of the overall count, by 38 in Red River and 105 in DeSoto as of mid-July.

The problem was the lists sent to the parishes weren’t created to be a comprehensive list of all cases--they were only designed to let first responders know which houses had infected patients. As such, the lists included duplicate cases and cases with incomplete parish information provided by the Health Department before it corrected the data for the dashboard. Plus, the Louisiana State Police didn’t include corrections the Health Department did make to the lists.

The saga over the lists reached a tipping point last week when the Health Department accused some local officials of violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) by using the lists for purposes other than helping first responders. The federal government has issued guidance saying officials need to limit the use of such information to helping first responders in order to stay in compliance with privacy laws.

It also revealed a wide gulf in trust between some small-town officials and the Health Department over data. Shawn Beard, the Red River Parish police jury president, said last week it was “simple mathematics” that proved the Health Department was inflating its numbers because the list his parish received included duplicates.

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Beard said Friday the auditor did a good job, and that the report shows he was telling the “absolute truth” that “we were given bad information.” Beard, who stressed he was speaking on behalf of himself and not the parish, said he hadn’t read the report but had participated in a conference call with the Legislative Auditor about the results.

However, Beard declined to comment on whether that means he believes Purpera’s conclusion that the state is not inflating the tally of cases.

“Do I personally believe these numbers?” Beard said. “I don’t believe all this stuff that’s going on. I believe a lot of it is hype, I believe a lot of it is politics.”

The Health Department has long beat back theories that it is inflating the case count by counting each positive test result as a new case. In July, the agency released data showing total cases and positive tests that show positive tests far outnumber cases.

For instance, as of July 22, the state had received 151,740 positive tests that resulted in 107,394 cases, meaning it removed more than 44,000 duplicates.

Purpera said the more comprehensive review his agency will do of the Health Department data should get to the bottom of several theories surrounding the data, as well as look at best practices in other states. 

"You can't make good decisions without good data," he said. 


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com