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As vaccines arrive, Louisiana audit says labs slow to report

Louisiana

The first vials of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine sit in a refrigerator at Ochsner Hospital on O’Neal Lane, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (Bill Feig/The Advocate via AP, Pool)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana started receiving shipments of a second coronavirus vaccine Monday, as a new audit said labs are taking so long to report COVID-19 data to the state and providing incomplete information that it’s often not useful for determining the scale of the virus outbreak.

A week after doses of the Pfizer vaccine began shipping to states, another coronavirus vaccine — this one from Moderna — also became available for use. Gov. John Bel Edwards’s office said Louisiana received nearly 44,000 Moderna vaccine doses Monday and should get a total of 79,500 doses over the week, in addition to more than 28,000 Pfizer vaccine doses in this second week of shipments.

More than half of the Moderna doses and all the Pfizer ones will go to hospital employees, EMS workers and firefighters, the Democratic governor’s office said. About 36,000 Moderna doses will be steered to people who live and work at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Those immunizations, to be handled by staff with CVS and Walgreens, won’t begin until Dec. 28.

Widespread vaccination isn’t expected for months, and Louisiana is grappling with a third surge of coronavirus cases that is filling hospital beds and threatens to grow worse with holiday gatherings and travel. At least 6,775 deaths in Louisiana are confirmed from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus, according to the state health department, a number that ticks upward every day.

And a new audit is questioning whether the Edwards administration is receiving adequate testing information, which the governor uses to set restrictions on businesses and activities.

The non-partisan report released Monday by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office suggests the slow pace of laboratories’ reporting of virus test results could be hindering the health department’s ability to do adequate contact tracing and determine the rate of positive versus negative test results. Auditors said some COVID-19 tests are not being reported to the state at all.

“The lack of complete test data could affect the reliability of the positivity rate and the state’s ability to make informed decisions during the pandemic,” the report says.

Purpera’s office said it checked data Louisiana’s health department received through Oct. 1. Auditors found the agency had enough cross-checks to ensure numbers provided on the state’s website about coronavirus cases and deaths is not over-reported — dismissing a concern raised by some Republican lawmakers and other conservatives.

But the auditor’s office said the lag time in lab reporting and the absence of some reporting entirely means Louisiana’s health department “cannot ensure that the data on the dashboard is complete” and could cause problems in determining what percentage of test results are positive.

Edwards and public health leaders use the percentage of tests returning positive to determine how severe the virus outbreak is at any given time — and how intense they believe coronavirus restrictions should be to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Health Secretary Courtney Phillips defended the department’s data analysis, saying it accounts for many issues raised by the auditor’s office and excludes data that could skew the positivity percentage. She called the state’s calculated positivity rate “as reliable as possible.”

“The decisions made and public health guidance provided by reference to the positivity rate have properly informed the public and reduced disease transmission and spread,” Phillips wrote in response to the audit.

The report says some labs did not submit test results to Louisiana’s health department within 24 hours, as required by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state, instead taking more than five days to submit more than 19% of positive COVID-19 tests.

In addition, auditors found COVID-19 tests billed to Medicaid that were not included in state data; tests performed for the New Orleans Saints not reported to Louisiana, but to other states where players had permanent addresses; and labs that sent only partial test results.

Of 592 labs reporting data, half of them only reported positive test results, auditors said. That could skew the state’s positivity rate higher, making it seem a community’s outbreak is more widespread than it is.

Phillips said her agency excludes from its positivity calculations data from labs that are only submitting positive tests results.

The health department “would agree with a characterization of the data not being ‘complete,’ but surely not unreliable,” Phillips wrote.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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