Numbers game: Late updates to DHHS lead to later revisions of COVID daily hospital totals

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The state Department of Health and Human Services is changing some daily COVID-19-related hospitalization figures in the days that follow.

After initially saying there were a single-day record 1,291 patients hospitalized on Wednesday, DHHS revised that number Thursday, reducing it to 1,272 — still the most in a single day, but 19 fewer than previously announced.

The agency has changed those daily figures on several days during the past two weeks, reflecting the challenge of obtaining a final, firm count of how many people are in hospitals on a given day.

The section of DHHS data website with hospital figures includes a disclaimer that there will be “a small shift in hospitalization numbers” during its transition to an automated system by which facilities can report their numbers.

DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said Thursday that she was unaware of the most recent change.

“We are trying to collect that data and be transparent and make sure you can see that on our website,” Cohen said.

Agency spokeswoman Amy Adams Ellis told CBS 17 News that those changes are the end result of a complicated review process by the DHHS data team.

Hospitals report their numbers to the state in two ways — either through an automatic system, or manually.

While those manual reports are “a one-time snapshot” of the numbers during a given time each day, the automated process sends data to the state multiple times during the day.

At 6:30 p.m. each day, DHHS pools together the data for the following day’s update — the update posted at around noon Friday is prepared by 6:30 p.m. Thursday, for example — and occasionally, hospitals filing automatically will send data after that deadline. In that example, those late numbers wouldn’t be publicly reported until Saturday.

Also, Ellis said, the data team reviews those manual submissions and runs trend reports to check for potential errors. The team will contact hospitals to verify numbers that are not consistent with an expected value — a higher or lower bed capacity, for example. 

That verification sometimes comes in after the deadline, resulting in an update a day later.

There’s one more reason for the late changes, she said. While hospitals are encouraged to report their totals daily, not all of them do.

On occasion, a hospital will not report for “several days in a row,” either due to heavy workload, an illness or a vacation by the submitter.

That data sometimes is submitted in “a batch upload” to make up for the missed days.

And while not every hospital is reporting every day, more facilities have been submitting their data lately.

CBS 17 News has been tracking those percentages and that over the past two weeks, the daily average of hospitals reporting is 90.2 percent. That figure was at 87 percent from July 3-16 and 85 percent during the two-week period before that.

The highest percentage on record was 96 percent on Tuesday, and that figure has been at 80 percent or better every day since July 5.

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