Florida cuts ties with testing contractor over data dump of nearly 75,000 'stale' COVID-19 results

©Orlando Sentinel

Health care workers collect samples at a testing site at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium in Miami Florida on July 23, 2020. - Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis severed all state ties to Quest Diagnostics after learning of a massive data dump of nearly 75,000 unreported coronavirus cases dating back to April.

The state Department of Health delayed its daily reporting of coronavirus numbers Tuesday because of what DeSantis said was “unusable and stale data” from the company.

DeSantis called the test reporting error “the most egregious example we’ve seen.”

The state reported that without the Quest results, the positivity rate for new cases totaling 3,773 for Aug. 31 is 5.9%. With the Quest results, that total rises to 7,643 cases with a positivity rate of 6.8%. The state said the majority of the Quest results were for tests more than two weeks old, and some as old as five months.

DeSantis stressed that “the individuals who tested positive at that time were notified by the lab, which is obviously very important. The lab just did not submit those results to the state. … That’s not acceptable.”

He said the biggest impact of the mistake was that testing numbers play a huge role in determining public strategy.

“These labs know that their results are being used by people to determine the course of certain policies,” he said. “Someone will say, ‘the positive rate has gone up, maybe we can’t do in-person schooling.’ … That actually has an effect. And so I think it’s really disquieting to see that happen.”

The company responded to DeSantis’ move with a statement saying the delay was due to a technical issue.

“Quest Diagnostics takes seriously our responsibility to report laboratory data to public health authorities in a timely manner to aid pandemic response,” reads a company statement. “We apologize for this matter and regret the challenge it poses for public health authorities in Florida. The issue has since been resolved.”

The company noted it had performed about 1.4 million tests in the state to date, saying it provides more testing than any other lab for Florida residents.

“We believe we are well-positioned to continue to effectively aid patient care and public health response for the state,” the statement continues. “We remain open to working with the state Department of Health to provide testing that meets the needs required for patient care and public health response.”

The state said in the press release the data would be ingested for historical significance, but that Tuesday’s numbers would “have little impact on the status of the pandemic today.”

About three hours later than normal, the state released the updated data including 187 more Florida resident deaths to bring the state death toll to 11,374. An additional 144 nonresident deaths make the combined toll 11,518.

Total positive cases to date number at 631,040, or about 1 in 34 residents, or 2.9% of the state’s 21.5 million population.

The case total, even minus the Quest data, is higher than Monday’s 10-week low of 1,885 new cases.

State cases totals have been dropping since the high of 15,300 reported positive COVID-19 results on July 12, and the DOH has not reported more than 10,000 cases since July 25 and has been under 5,000 every day since Aug. 15 until Tuesday’s report.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have also been steadily falling. Across the state, 3,612 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. The state’s online tool updates several times throughout the day.

To date, 38,859 people have been hospitalized in Florida, the state’s COVID-19 dashboard shows.

Nearly 4.7 million people have been tested in Florida, with 60,331 more tests reported Tuesday compared with the previous day, the dashboard update said, although DeSantis cited nearly 75,000 tests from just Quest alone.

In the U.S., New York has the most deaths from COVID-19, with over 32,000, followed by New Jersey with nearly 16,000, California with nearly 13,000 and Texas with more than 12,000. Florida is sixth in the nation for fatalities, or about 1 in every 1,888 people. That’s less than the national number, though, which has seen about one in 1,788 people in the U.S. die from COVID-19. Worldwide, the number is about 1 in 9,160.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)