Lack of tech support, growing list of reporting requirements led to issues with state hospital numbers

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A lack of holiday weekend technical support and a growing list of federal and state requirements contributed to the data issues that resulted in incomplete coronavirus-related statistics from hospitals in some parts of North Carolina, a Department of Health and Human Services official said Tuesday.

To remedy the situation, DHHS is refining its backup systems and is creating a guide for the hospitals to help them meet those requirements, spokeswoman Kelly Haight Connor told CBS17.com.

While showing some of the lowest numbers in weeks, the state acknowledged those problems in the data collection process likely led to an undercount in the number of people across the state who were in hospitals with COVID-19.

Tuesday marked the fifth day that the state Department of Health and Human Services has been dealing with “continued technical and submission issues” with data from some hospital systems in the state.

A screenshot of the header of the Hospitalizations section of the NCDHHS COVID-19 data dashboard Tuesday.

DHHS reported 827 people in hospitals Tuesday, an increase of 71 from Monday, with just 80 percent of facilities reporting their numbers.

Three factors drove the incomplete set of numbers, Haight Connor said: Fewer hospitals reporting during the holiday weekend, a lack of technical support for those hospitals attempting to report via an automated process that required specialized troubleshooting expertise that was not available during the weekend and newly required data elements that can lead to an increase in errors in data entry.

The federal government requires 96 data elements while the state mandates 36 of them, Haight Connor said.

Among the adjustments to the backup systems, hospitals may upload their information via a spreadsheet file or submit it manually, Haight Connor said. She says the agency is simplifying the process so that it “will not require highly technical skills” while also allowing for a faster confirmation of numbers. Submitting them manually, while the least efficient and most time-intensive option, is the only choice for some hospitals, she said.

Over the past week, the state has reported a daily average of 842 COVID-19 patients hospitalized. The hospitalization figure for a single day hasn’t been that low since June 16, when 829 people were in hospitals across the state.

But the past week has also been marked by low reporting rates. CBS 17 News has been tracking the daily percentage of hospitals that submit their numbers to the state, and since last Wednesday, that figure hasn’t been higher than 82 percent — but it was in the high 70s four times during that span.

In the month before that — from Aug. 1 to Sept. 1 — the average percentage was 89 percent and it dipped below 80 on only one day, when it was 79 percent on Aug. 3.

When the state first acknowledged the problems last Friday, it blamed technical issues for two hospital systems being unable to submit the entirety of their data for Sept. 5. 

It affected two of the eight regions, or preparedness coalitions as they are labeled by the state — one for the Triad, and another for the eastern section of the state east of the Wake-Nash county line.

Over the past two days, though, the region including the westernmost mountains also emerged as a trouble spot.

A screenshot of the regional breakdown of the percentages of hospitals that reported their data Tuesday to DHHS.

Only half the hospitals in that region reported their numbers Monday, and that number was up to 69 percent Tuesday.

Only 63 percent of hospitals in the eastern region submitted their data Monday and the slight increase to 68 percent Tuesday nevertheless marked the lowest number in the state.

Messages to officials in both the Mountain Area and Eastern healthcare preparedness coalitions did not return messages from CBS17.com seeking comment.

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