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State reports inaccurate COVID-19 data in Churchill and Washoe counties


The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has a dashboard that tracks COVID-19 cases and deaths per county in Nevada, but some of that data is inaccurate.

DHHS reported that there were nearly twice as many cases of COVID-19 in Churchill County as there actually were, according to Churchill County Manager Jim Barbee. He was appointed as Deputy Health Officer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There have been seven positive cases of COVID-19 in Churchill County as of May 25, but DHHS’ dashboard reported that there were 12 cases of COVID-19 as of May 25, according to Barbee who took a screenshot at 10:40 a.m. on May 25. 

Jim Barbee's screenshot of Nevada's COVID-19 dashboard, reflecting inaccurate data for Churchill County.
Jim Barbee’s screenshot of Nevada’s COVID-19 dashboard, reflecting inaccurate data for Churchill County.

“It definitely has an impact because people are scared,” Barbee said. “This is a stressful time all the way around. No matter what their opinion of the situation is, there’s fear. To see the numbers, basically overnight, almost double, that brings fear in a small community like this.”

Barbee said the reason for the discrepancy was that the number of COVID-19 cases was added to antibody testing results.

Antibody tests do not detect if a person currently has COVID-19 but can determine if the body has created antibodies in response to being exposed to COVID-19 or other strains of coronavirus.

Barbee said that Banner Churchill Community Hospital paid for staff to receive antibody testing through Quest Diagnostics. He said five staff members’ antibody tests came back positive, and those results were sent directly to the state. Barbee doesn’t know how many staff members in total were tested. 

Barbee alleges that DHHS combined the seven positive COVID-19 cases in Churchill County with the five staff members who received positive antibody test results. 

This Is Reno asked DHHS if COVID-19 cases and antibody results have been combined in any other counties or if this is a concern, but DHHS did not respond for comment.

Jim Barbee
Churchill County Manager Jim Barbee

Barbee said that he was able to see the data before it was published. He saw the discrepancy in the data and tried to address it over a week before the dashboard went live, he said. He alleged that DHHS said the mix up was not possible. 

The data was not changed, even after DHHS officially published its COVID-19 dashboard online.

“I know how many positives we’ve had,” Barbee said. “We’re a small county. We’ve had very few. I’ve been involved in the trace back on all of them, including the antibody tests, so I know which ones are which.”

The numbers on DHHS’ dashboard have resulted in calls from concerned Churchill County residents.

“We have people going, ‘Why is Churchill County trying to hide data or information from us?’ people being our citizens,” Barbee said.

The Fallon Post reported this story first.

Governor promises that data isn’t being mixed up

Barbee’s frustrations also stem from Gov. Steve Sisolak’s tweet that the state doesn’t mix up these numbers.

“Nevada’s COVID-19 dashboard found at http://NVHealthResponse.nv.gov does not mix viral and antibody tests. The data on Nevada’s site includes only viral testing,” Sisolak tweeted on May 22, after Barbee had been asking DHHS to correct the numbers before publishing the dashboard.

Sisolak’s tweet referenced the dangers of combining the amount of COVID-19 tests and antibody tests. By adding the two, it could appear that states are conducting more tests than they truly are, and testing capacities are improving. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and some states have been combining these totals. Several states are using the conflated data to make it appear that they are meeting benchmarks to reopen.

One federal benchmark states are required to meet before reopening is increased testing. If states combine COVID-19 testing results with antibody tests results it looks like the state is conducting more testing and meeting that benchmark and can begin reopening, according to the article Sisolak’s tweet referenced from The Atlantic.

“I actually thought that [Sisolak’s tweet] was going to bring resolution to this, but not before I guess they put the dashboard out with the county data,” Barbee said.

This Is Reno checked DHHS’ dashboard at 2 p.m. May 25, and the dashboard reported there are six cases of COVID-19 in Churchill County and one death as of May 25. Barbee was not notified about this change. 

Incorrect data persists

Additionally, DHHS is reporting the wrong number of COVID-19-related deaths in Washoe County. 

The dashboard states that there were 50 COVID-19-related deaths in the county as of May 25 at 3:30 p.m. However, Washoe County reported that there were 54 COVID-19-related deaths as of May 25 at 2:30 p.m. 

According to DHHS’ dashboard, “COVID-19 data are reported as timely, accurately, and completely as we have available. Data are updated as we receive information that is more complete and will change over time as we learn more.”

The dashboard also reports there are 396 COVID-19-related deaths in Nevada but if one totals the COVID-19-related deaths reported in each county on the dashboard, the total is 392.

DHHS and Nevada Health Response Center did not respond for comment.

This Is Reno’s COVID-19 news coverage

Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck is a graduate of University of Nevada, Reynolds School of Journalism. She has reported on issues impacting Northern Nevada, including the affordable housing crisis, a lack of oral healthcare and challenges voters with disabilities face while trying to participate in the election process. She has directed and filmed two documentaries about homelessness.Through reporting, Lucia strives to shine a light on the challenges vulnerable populations face in our community.