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As The Coronavirus Spikes, Missouri Again Loses Access To Its Hospital Data

Julie Denesha
Data on how COVID-19 is affecting hospitals in Missouri, such as Saint Luke's in Kansas City, is currently incomplete.

State officials say COVID-19 hospitalizations in Missouri have been undercounted for several days.

Updated: October 23, 2020 at 9:52 AM CDT
Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services reported on Friday that the hospital data issue had been resolved and that the newly posted data on its website is accurate.

Throughout the pandemic, as COVID-19 testing has lagged and data on deaths has proven unreliable, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and state health department officials have pointed to hospital data as evidence that the virus’ effects have been minimal.

This week, however, the health department announced that the number of people hospitalized with the virus in official data has been undercounted due to changes in the reporting system. A department spokesperson said the problem would persist until it's resolved by federal officials.

The data problem marks the second time during the pandemic that Missouri officials have lost access to hospital data. But Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox insisted the problem is due to the system used by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

“Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do but wait for the federal government to fix this in the coming days,” Cox said in an email.

The change occurred as Missouri reached all-time highs for the number of people in hospitals, and several hospitals, especially in rural areas, were reporting capacity issues.

Though Missouri Hospital Association senior vice president Mary Becker said Thursday that the issue had been resolved, the data on the state’s website had not been corrected.

The Department of Health and Senior Services announced on its COVID-19 dashboard this week that its hospital data had been undercounted. The announcement said that data from Oct. 17 onward would be affected until further notice. Updates to the template used for hospital reporting had caused the federal system to crash and delayed reporting, according to Becker.

The hospital data includes the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, overall hospital capacity and the availability of intensive care units and ventilators.

The data show 1,439 people in Missouri were hospitalized on Oct. 16, the last day for which the state says the data is still reliable. COVID-19 hospitalizations reached all-time highs last week, far surpassing the number of people hospitalized at any other point during the pandemic.

The data problem that resulted from the federal government’s system change compounds the already-difficult situation faced by hospitals, says Becker.

“It was not the ideal time for them to make changes,” Becker said in an email. “Hospitals are already spending significant time submitting data — and this just makes it more difficult.”

The data problem has affected hospitals throughout the country, according to Becker. However, similar problems of incomplete hospitalization data have not been widely reported in other states.

Kansas hospital data, for example, has not been significantly affected by the recent reporting changes, according to Kansas Hospital Association senior vice president Cindy Samuelson.

A similar problem with Missouri hospital data occurred earlier this year, when the health department and the Missouri Hospital Association were unable to access the state’s own hospital data after the federal government switched systems that are used by hospitals to report data.

Hospital data for Missouri was unavailable to state and hospital officials for roughly two weeks, and even now, hospital data from this period remains unavailable on the state’s dashboard.

The hospital association had relied on the federal database, rather than collecting its own data, for reporting purposes and was temporarily unable to access the data on the new system, according to Missouri Hospital Association spokesman Dave Dillon.

Dillon said at the time that the association was considering creating its own data collection and reporting system to serve hospitals in Missouri so that it would not need to use the federal database.

However, the hospital association continues to rely on the federal data for its own reporting, Baker said on Thursday.

The recent loss of hospital data comes on the heels of grim COVID-19 news in Missouri that suggests other data related to the virus may also be questionable.

The state’s COVID-19 positivity testing rate for the last seven days stands at 21%, while the overall positivity rate in Missouri as calculated by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention is 10.8%. Infectious disease experts say that testing does not provide a reliable measure of the spread of illness when the positivity rate exceeds 10%.

COVID-19 death rates, which are also regarded by infectious disease experts as an indicator of the spread of the virus, have also been unreliable in Missouri. On several days during the last two months, the health department has disclosed dozens of deaths involving COVID-19 from earlier in the year that had previously gone unreported. In total, those deaths added hundreds to the overall count for the pandemic.

Even with inconsistent and missing data, Missouri still shows a sharp increase in new cases. On Thursday, the state reported a total of 10,655 new COVID-19 cases during the previous seven days. Missouri had the sixth largest number of new cases in the country.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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