Montgomery County COVID-19 lab test backlog causes 800-plus case count surge, changes to reporting methods

Montgomery County has announced a change in how it will report COVID-19 cases. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Montgomery County has announced a change in how it will report COVID-19 cases. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Montgomery County has announced a change in how it will report COVID-19 cases. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

After a backlog caused a daily COVID-19 case count report to surge by more than 800 in one day, Montgomery County officials announced July 15 the county is changing the way it reports COVID-19 cases to prevent further backlogs.

Misti Willingham, public information officer for the Montgomery County Hospital District and Montgomery County Public Health District, said in an email the backlog has accumulated over the past three weeks. She said the sudden spike of 853 new reported cases—787 active, 65 recoveries and one death—should be a one-time event.

“We were aware that our staff was becoming overwhelmed with the volume of cases over the past three weeks. When this didn’t level out or become manageable, we decided to change our reporting structure to reporting cases before contact investigations are complete,” Willingham said.

Beginning July 15, the county’s public health district is reporting all positive cases received via laboratory results before it launches a contact investigation. A contact investigation gathers additional information about individuals who test positive, such as the status of the case and the sex of the individual as well as whom they have come into contact with, according to county officials. The initial laboratory reports only include the age and address of the individual. However, the residents with positive results are notified of their positive tests by their health care providers, a release from the MCPHD release states.

Willingham was not immediately able to answer whether other counties in the state were using a similar reporting method.

In the letter posted on the MCPHD website, the department states it is grateful to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough for an offer of additional county staff and funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act for overtime for department employees. Willingham did not have information on the number of staff or the amount of funding required, but Community Impact Newspaper has reached out to Keough’s Chief of Staff Jason Millsaps for that information.

Willingham said in a July 16 email that three staff members—one from MCPHD and two from the MCHD—review lab results continually to identify positive cases and residency. Those staff members assign the cases to another team, which has grown from three full-time members to nine since March, including one provided by MCHD and one from the Texas Department of State Health Services, she said. An additional DSHS team will be added July 20, she said. The county is also providing an unspecified number of staff to help clear the backlog, she said.

In a letter MCPHD posted on its website, it clarifies what kind of positive tests are included in the results it reports. The district states it only reports lab-confirmed COVID-19 tests done through the methods known as PCR, RNA, NAA or molecule testing. It does not include antigen or antibody tests, or IgG/IgM tests, because they can provide too many false negative or positive results.
By Vanessa Holt
A resident of the Houston area since 2011, Vanessa began working in community journalism in her home state of New Jersey in 1996. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2016 as a reporter for the Spring/Klein edition and became editor of that paper in March 2017 and editor of The Woodlands edition in January 2019.


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