Coronavirus test data only tells part of virus’ spread, state expert says

State epidemiologist says additional surveillance methods coming but not in place yet
Updated: Mar. 30, 2020 at 7:10 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – The number of confirmed positive tests of COVID-19 only tells part of the story of the virus, North Carolina State Epidemiologist Zack Moore said on Monday.

Moore held a briefing call with reports Monday morning to provide insight into what he and his team are doing to track the spread of the virus outside of lab testing.

“We do know that there are limits in testing capability nationally,” Moore told reporters. “Part of this discussion today is acknowledging that we need to rely on some of our evidence-based tools to track this.”

On the call, Moore detailed some of those methods, all of which are already used to track cases of the flu on an annual bases.

Those methods include using a network of hospitals to track cases of flu-like illness, known as the Influenza-Like Illness Surveillance Network; tracking symptoms in patients to present to emergency rooms, something NCDHHS already does is near real-time; and collecting data on patients who are hospitalized due to COVID-19.

Previous: State health officials behind their own timeline on a COVID-19 surveillance plan as testing still lags

None of those methods had been modified completely to be able to track COVID-19 as of late Monday afternoon, Moore said in a follow-up call with WBTV.

Some methods, like tracking COVID-19 through the Influenza-Like Illness Surveillance Network only needs some minor tweaks to properly track the virus, he said. Other methods will take another week or two before they can be used to track COVID-19.

These methods of tracking the virus are important to understanding the full spread of COVID-19, as testing continues to be limited due to a shortage of supplies and turnaround time remains slow due to a backlog at many labs across the state.

“I think in the big picture, we’re trying to use tools that we have, that we’re familiar with and that give us good information for tracking flu and tracking other things,” Moore said. “It’s a matter of pulling all those other pieces together for this purpose.”

Vicki Strauss was tested for COVID-19 12 days ago. Her doctor ordered the test after she presented with a fever, cough and body aches and then tested negative for the flu.

“Today is day 12, so my quarantine is actually over two days,” Strauss said before coughing. “I don’t even know if I’ve had it or not for sure.”

Her doctor did the first test 12 days ago and then called her back last Wednesday to have another sample taken so it could be sent to a second lab with faster turn-around times.

Neither test result had arrived as of Monday afternoon.

Previous: Supply shortage prompts NC to limit coronavirus testing

“Do you have any confidence in the numbers the state is reporting, just based on what you’ve been through?” a WBTV reporter asked Strauss.

“There’s a lot more positive out there, I think,” she responded.

“I don’t think the numbers are accurate. I don’t see how they could be,” Strauss said later in the interview.

In his follow-up call with WBTV, Moore, the state epidemiologist said the reported number of positive COVID-19 tests are not a complete picture of the virus’ spread across the state.

“People should always understand that that’s not the full picture. That’s not to say those numbers aren’t meaningful. We’re going to continue posting lab-confirmed case counts; that’s obviously something that’s important but it isn’t the whole picture,” Moore said.

At the same time, Moore said, the state would continue posting daily positive case counts and he hoped to soon begin providing a weekly update of numbers from the other surveillance methods.

“I don’t want to tell people the case counts that you see from us or nationally are meaningless and you should not look at them. I think there’s still value to be gained and we’re going to keep posting those,” Moore said. “The point I was trying to make this morning is it’s just a piece of the picture and there’s other data we can get that will help us and, you know, give us more comprehensive data for our decision making.”

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