In the span of three days last month, Walgreens pharmacies in Monroe County misreported the results of eight novel coronavirus tests to a state database, muddying the county’s contact tracing efforts.
Walgreens submitted positive coronavirus test results for four people who tested negative, and negative results for four people who tested positive, according to accounts from the drugstore chain and the county and state health departments.
Walgreens and the health departments said all the patients received the correct test results; the incorrect reporting was limited to the state’s database, which the state says local health officials rely on for “facilitating the identification of emergent public health problems.”
When county health departments learn of newly confirmed coronavirus cases in the state’s records, they start contact tracing. They call the people who tested positive and gather a list of others who need to isolate or quarantine as a result of exposure to those patients.
The eight misreported Monroe County cases occurred just as the Finger Lakes region was entering phase three of reopening, adding another layer of work to the contact tracing that was crucial to containing any new outbreaks of the virus. The health department said the delay was brief. “The county discovered the errors and addressed them quickly,” spokesperson Julie Philipp said in an email.
Walgreens and the health departments said the issue was isolated, not systemic. “Misreporting to the state database used by our contact tracers is concerning, but it’s exceptionally rare,” Philipp said.
Another instance occurred in April, Philipp said, when the University of Rochester Medical Center “briefly experienced an electronic file transfer issue” that sent a batch of incorrect results to health care providers. “It was remedied within hours.”
Still, these situations illustrate the need for better safeguards on data, said Oscar Alleyne, chief of programs and services for the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
“We can’t play around with people’s lives like this. We need better security with regards to the information that we’re relying on,” Alleyne said.
Monroe County public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza said recently that the local contact tracing workforce is already stretched thin. Alleyne said that’s true across the country, even without inaccuracies in reporting.
When data is misreported, it creates an additional burden on health departments, he said.
“There’s always going to be a cascading impact that requires staff time and resources. … The outcome: a health department making decisions based on an error.”
The Monroe County health department said its staff’s quick discovery of the misreported cases “indicates the contact tracing system works.”
But Alleyne said every moment that contact tracers spend tracking down the correct test results is a moment lost in containing the virus. “Time is of the essence.”
Walgreens said it’s working to reduce the chance of similar errors in the future.
“We have also reviewed our procedures and implemented additional reporting processes to help ensure quality and accuracy,” spokesperson Phil Caruso said in an emailed statement. “We’re sorry this occurred and apologized to the patients and state for any confusion this may have caused.”