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State Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, shown here in April 2019, chairs Legislative Audit Advisory Committee that looked into controversy over official COVID-19 case counts.

Hoping to put an end to claims by some sheriffs and parish officials that the Edwards administration has exaggerated the number of positive COVID-19 tests, a legislative committee last week investigated.

By the end, Rep. Barry Ivey of Central, the Republican chairing the Legislative Audit Advisory Task Force, said the Louisiana Department of Health’s numbers were “almost entirely accurate.” He then accused some local officials of improperly using social media to claim discrepancies between the count on the state’s official dashboard, and a list provided sheriffs to alert law enforcement officers, firefighters, medical technicians and other first responders that the home to which they were called could harbor a person infected with the virus.

In going public, the offending officials had violated exceptions to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, that allowed the limited distribution of patient names and addresses, Ivey said.

The imbroglio revealed a wide gulf in trust between some small-town officials and the state.

“When you compound the fact that some of these officials violated the HIPAA policy and publicly went out and made their own assertions effectively to the entirety of the LDH data — and whether or not you could trust it — I believe is an extremely egregious violation,” Ivey said. Case closed.

Well, not quite.

LaSalle Parish Sheriff Scott Franklin said Thursday he never revealed the names of the infected in his parish, and thereby didn’t violate HIPAA. And even if he accepted the Health Department’s explanations for why the numbers of positive cases on the state’s official dashboard didn’t jive with his list, the numbers still don’t add up.

“Shouldn’t the numbers, when all the duplications and inaccuracies are removed, eventually be about the same?” Franklin asked.

In largely rural LaSalle, the health department counted 380 positive cases, but the real number was 269 as of Thursday, Franklin said.

He noted that the report included 59 positives among prisoners in parish jail, most of whom were sent by the U.S. Immigration Control and Enforcement; 21 who were counted twice; three who were counted three times; and one who was counted four times. Ten more had addresses outside the parish.

A big reason the controversy is dying down is because all 64 sheriffs were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, Franklin said, adding that he was the last to sign and did so on Thursday.

The agreement forbids any use of the list of infected names and addresses except as first-responder alerts. The list is supposed to be destroyed after 30 days because they contain only those who tested positive in the previous month. If the agreement is breached “including but not limited to a use or disclosure of the COVID Data for any purpose or in any manner not expressly authorized,” the health department can unilaterally terminate sending the lists.

The parish officials who had previously complained the loudest about discrepancies between the numbers didn’t return calls or had nothing to say about the hearing’s findings.

“I don’t agree with everything said. I won’t get into specifics,” Red River Police Jury President Shawn Beard said Thursday.

Moon Griffon, the iconic conservative host who put several of the officials on his radio program, said Thursday that a number of officials are telling him that nothing has changed but they no longer can speak publicly because of what Griffon and others called a “gag order.”

Basically, legislative auditors found, positive test results come from private laboratories to the state health department, which collates the information. A raw list of names is compiled quickly with the infected separated by parish and given to the Louisiana State Police. The lists goes through parish Homeland Security offices to individual sheriffs. In most instances, the data is entered into computers that pop up a code that someone at the address tested positive as warning for first responders to take precautions. The process began early on before masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment, PPEs, were readily available.

Public Health epidemiologist Theresa Sokol said the state follows guidelines set by the federal government and nationwide coalitions of state health agencies to ensure that all the cases are counted the same way, so that Louisiana figures mesh with those collected by other states.

Back at the pandemic’s beginning when the state handled all the tests, the specific data points were all there. Then, to speed up testing, private companies were contracted and those labs sometimes failed to check all the boxes.

First responders needed the lists quickly and some of the names with questions about their status often weren’t included until they were checked out, she said. The lists are not intended to represent the cumulative case count for each parish.

The Health Department also periodically updates its online dashboard, which lists total cases per parish. For instance, on July 22, the department removed more than 44,000 cases from the dashboard.

Underlying this saga is partisan politics and a look at how distrustful many are of government.

A survey by the national Pew Research Center last week found that roughly two-thirds of conservative Republicans agree with President Donald Trump in saying that more testing is primary reason for national rise in coronavirus cases.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges that a few people are double counted, having taken more than one test. But a New York Times analysis says the increase in the number of tests has not been enough to account for even bigger rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Still, partisan politics has both sides talking past each other.

“Unfortunately, it appears that there is a deliberate misinformation campaign claiming that the state’s inflating cases by counting people multiple times if they take multiple tests and that that just isn’t the case,” Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said in late July when the tally pushed past the 100,000 mark since the beginning of the outbreak. “I just do hope that people are taking that very seriously and serves as a reality check that we are in a public health emergency, not just one that’s been declared by myself.”


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.