Louisiana legislative auditor shoots down conspiracy theory concerning duplicate COVID-19 cases

State’s numbers are ‘generally correct,’ auditor says

Doctor taking a swab sample. (Stock photo by Mladen Sladojevic/Getty Images)

Last month, the Red River Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and the DeSoto Parish Sheriff’s Office made Facebook posts suggesting that their COVID-19 numbers weren’t bad as state officials were making them out to be  because the lists of infected people that officials in those parishes had been given included some of the same names multiple times.  Those two social media posts help fuel a conspiracy that the Louisiana Department of Health was, for whatever reason, exaggerating the virus’ impact on Louisiana.

But an Aug. 6 report from Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera exonerates the state health department, concluding that the auditor’s office  “found that the numbers LDH reported on its dashboard are generally correct. For example, we found that none of the duplicates reported by Red River Parish were counted twice on LDH’s dashboard, and all but three duplicates identified by DeSoto Parish were not counted twice on LDH’s dashboard.”  

Louisiana’s legislative auditor said in an Aug. 6 report that the Red River Parish COVID-19 numbers reported by the state are correct, but in this screen grab taken Aug. 7, an unedited Facebook post claiming that the state’s numbers were wrong was still visible. (Screen grab)

In its July 20 Facebook post, the DeSoto Parish Sheriff’s Office said that the state health department had added 105 more cases than had actually occurred in the parish and that, at that point, DeSoto hadn’t had 491 cases but 386.  Had that actually been true, the state’s count would have been off by 27 percent.  But, based on the auditor’s finding, the state’s count was off by 0.6 percent.

“According to LDH staff, 1-2% of the cases reported on the dashboard are potential duplicates that will eventually be removed through its automated and manual review and de-duplication processes,” the legislative auditor writes. “We plan to conduct an audit of the dashboard to fully determine the integrity of the data reported on it.”

 

Apparently a combination of miscommunication and confusion contributed to local officials believing that their parishes had fewer cases than were being shown on the health department’s dashboard.  State officials weren’t vigilant about getting rid of duplications on the lists they gave to the parish’s first responders because, the auditor’s office says, the point was names, not numbers.  “The report was never intended to represent the cumulative positive case count for each parish…. (but) to help in protecting the health and safety of law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders…. Based on this purpose, it did not matter if an individual was listed twice as having tested positive, as long as he/she was listed.”

Prizing speed over accuracy, the health department would provide COVID-19 numbers to the Louisiana State Police, which would then create a report for the parish’s first responders, but the health department and the State Police didn’t communicate well with one another, the auditor found.  If, for example, health officials gave the State Police a report to give to first responders and later removed duplicates, those changes “were not communicated.”

Also, the auditor found, if health officials received information about a positive COVID-19 result from a test more than 30 days old, it wouldn’t put that in the information that first responders would receive because “such individuals are presumed negative and the parishes only need to know individuals who (are) presumed to still be positive for COVID-19.”

The state health department is now having parishes sign “data sharing agreements” that spells out how the data should and should not be used. The auditor predicts that those agreements “will help ensure that the data being shared by LDH with the parishes meets the initial intent of the First Responder Report, which is to provide advance notice to first responders regarding the possibility of coming into contact with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 during the course of their work.”

The auditor’s report was released Thursday, Aug. 6, but on Friday, Aug. 7, the Facebook posts mentioned above were still visible — and unedited.  The post from Red River officials had been shared 2,400 times and most of the 201 comments appeared to praise parish officials for “honesty” and “integrity” and accuse state officials, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, of corruption.