No, Albemarle County did not have 585 new COVID-19 cases last week, and Charlottesville did not have -419 COVID-19 cases, no matter what the state’s case data listed by report date shows.
The new data in the Blue Ridge Health District is not currently an accurate picture of what is happening locally with COVID-19 cases, officials from the district said.
The health district is cleaning the area’s old COVID-19 case data to assign cases to the correct locality — plus adding some missing cases from January — creating a misleading picture of new cases when sorted by reported date.
“Unfortunately, even though the case was reported once already, maybe back in 2021, or in January, somehow it is now reporting as a current case, even though it’s not,” said Ryan McKay, BRHD’s director of policy, planning and COVID-19 operations.
“And so the minus and addition, specific to Charlottesville and Albemarle and, to a lesser degree, the surrounding localities, is a reflection of us cleaning that data in that particular field.”
Charlottesville, Greene County and Nelson County show negative case numbers by case report date for multiple days in late March and early April. Louisa and Fluvanna counties are also in BRHD.
With the surge of cases and hospitalizations in January, some lab reports were missing and not checked in BRHD’s system at that time.
“If we’ve gone back and cleaned that, that also gets reported as a case that currently happened, even though the lab report date might be back in January, so that’s being reflected now as opposed to when it actually occurred,” he said.
The misleading data didn’t just mislead local residents who watch the trends. It confused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which rates communities for levels of COVID transmission. The data raised the county to the CDC’s medium COVID level. The county had been at the low level for two weeks, as case totals decreased. Business owners and other officials use the community levels to make decisions about masking and other measures.
Albemarle’s medium-level designation given March 31 showed the county’s case rate per 100,000 people was at 394.22.
McKay said Albemarle is actually seeing a case incidence rate below 100 per 100,000 people.
On the CDC’s site, Charlottesville has a case rate per 100,000 people of zero, putting it at the low community level.
“The CDC is reporting the cases that are reported on a particular day regardless of when the investigation was done, regardless of when the lab report came in and so it’s created this huge mess for Albemarle County in particular,” McKay said.
Data on the CDC website says that Albemarle had 519 cases between March 27 and April 2.
“We haven’t seen that many cases since January on a specific day for a specific locality, and we had less than 200 cases total for the district over that same time period,” McKay said.
The CDC did not respond by press time to questions sent Monday afternoon.
McKay said the BRHD had about half a dozen local businesses and organizations call by Monday afternoon who indicated they use the CDC community levels to make decisions about masks for their employees or visitors. The district is telling them about the issues and the correct case incidence rate.
The district is also working to communicate the issues to local officials and to the state Department of Health. McKay said hopefully the state can communicate the issues or even provide explainers to the CDC to try to make that correction.
“I think it’s unfortunate that this is how it’s reported and it gives the wrong impression about what’s occurring in the community,” McKay said.
The CDC has corrected the data before. In mid-March, the CDC had a “data ingestion error” for Albemarle, resulting in the case rate appearing “extremely high on [the] COVID Data Tracker.” The CDC noted this issue in a footnote and said it and “its partners have resolved this issue.”
At that time, the seven-day rolling average for Albemarle was listed at 141,631 cases. It has now been changed to 16 cases.
Cases on the BRHD’s COVID-19 data dashboard are currently shown by date of onset, which McKay said is more accurate than case data by report date. The seven-day moving average by date of onset is currently 16.3 cases.
“Someone might have bad symptoms on a Monday and not go into testing until Thursday, so the symptom onset is actually going to be the most accurate,” he said.
He said if community members look at the CDC COVID-19 data but see something that looks like it could be wrong or out of place, they should check the BRHD dashboard
“Coming to our dashboard to look at cases by date of onset actually gives a more accurate picture of what’s occurring, because it’s strictly based on what people report to us when their symptoms began, as opposed to when the lab was done or when it was actually recorded into our system,” McKay said.