This story has been updated with new data and comments.
The Texas Department of State Health Services failed to notify El Paso health officials of almost 900 positive COVID-19 cases since late June, part of what appears to be a widespread data failure that may have led tens of thousands of cases statewide to go unrecorded in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, El Paso announced 325 positive cases that had not been reported. On Saturday, the El Paso Department of Public Health revealed 356 previously unreported cases from the prior several weeks. DPH announced another 214 previously unreported cases on Sunday.
The 895 newly announced cases means that El Paso’s number of COVID-19 cases over the past eight weeks was 7.6 percent higher than previously announced.
City officials on Tuesday blamed that error on Honu, a contractor hired by the state of Texas to conduct mass testing in El Paso. Over the weekend, its explanation shifted, saying most of the newly discovered positive tests were from private labs. The Department of State Health Services gets the results from private labs and has lagged in notifying El Paso and other local jurisdictions of positive results, said Jorge Rodriguez, an assistant fire chief and the city’s emergency management coordinator
“The city of El Paso cannot report out on results it has not received and is not aware of; therefore, we report and adjust the data as we receive the results. We are working tirelessly with the state so they can hold labs accountable and improving state processes for timely reports to the DPH,” Rodriguez said in a statement.
Dallas County reported Sunday that it had received almost 5,200 delayed reports of COVID-19 positive cases from the state. “According to DSHS, the backlog of reports is due to coding errors and is beginning to be resolved through a recent system upgrade in their reporting system,” Dallas County officials said in a statement, adding that more delayed reports are expected in coming days.
El Paso Matters is seeking comment from the Department of State Health Services on the delays in reporting positive test results.
On Tuesday, Rodriguez said at a news conference that the delayed reporting was a one-time event.
“Those issues have since been resolved. And we’ve been receiving all of the results now in a timely fashion,” he said. When asked if more unreported positive cases might be discovered, Rodriguez said: “No, no. It appears that we are caught up.”
The city also announced for the first time Saturday that 108 deaths are under investigation as possibly connected to COVID-19, in addition to 357 deaths already linked to the disease.
The failure to timely report COVID-19 data has tremendous potential consequences. The El Paso Department of Public Health and the state have under-reported the impact of a pandemic for several weeks. Families, businesses and other governments — including schools — are relying on that data to make potential life and death decisions.
At this point, El Paso Matters considers El Paso and state COVID-19 data to be unreliable, so we’re suspending our weekly analysis until the city and state can demonstrate that they can reliably collect and report important public health data.