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'We are definitely missing cases:' Just a fraction of COVID-19 cases reported in Washington

At-home COVID-19 tests results have no reporting system, creating a challenge for experts to track accurate COVID-19 case counts.

SEATTLE — The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) said only a fraction of COVID-19 cases are being reported to the state.

This is making it difficult for health experts to predict when a new surge of infections is coming.

At-home COVID-19 tests are easy, accessible and free through the federal government.

But the experts who study COVID-19 trends said at-home tests create inaccuracy with data.

“We are definitely missing cases,” said Dr. Helen Chu, Associate Professor at UW Medicine Department of Epidemiology

A vast majority of positive COVID-19 cases are not reported to the state, Chu said.

“We are probably only capturing 10% of positive cases through the reporting," Chu said. 

In a statement to KING 5, the DOH said “due to at-home testing and other factors (such as people not testing at all) cases reported likely only represent approximately 15% of infections in Washington.”

According to Chu, this makes it hard to predict when a new wave of cases is headed our way.

“So people still look at the dashboards and they say, you know, the numbers don't look that high," Chu said. "They look like they may be going down. But that's because we don't have the data."

Now, instead of case numbers, the department of health is using hospitalization data to understand COVID’s prevalence.

“At this stage in the pandemic, our focus has though shifted away from case counts and towards hospital capacity as a key indicator of the health of the state," DOH said in a statement.

Chu said UW Medicine is using the same metrics but argues the system has its flaws as well.

“Hospitalizations only go up one to two weeks after the numbers of cases in the community go," Chu said. "So, we can track it, but we are probably a couple of weeks delayed in identifying an oncoming surge. I think that we missed the boat here with not developing a system to mandate capture of home antigen test data.”

To report a positive COVID case from an at-home test to the state, call the COVID-19 hotline at 1-800-525-0127.

Even with the difficulty in reporting cases, the state still recommends at-home COVID testing, along with other preventative measures, the agebct said in a statement:

“Along with vaccination, wearing a mask, hand washing, and physical distancing, frequent at-home testing can help you protect your families and friends, and is a great way to help in the fight against COVID-19. We recommend testing if you are feeling sick, think you may have been in contact with someone with COVID-19, are planning to attend a gathering or large event, or are traveling. Households across the state are eligible to receive free COVID-19 tests from the Department of Health through our Say Yes! COVID Test initiative. This is in addition to the Federal initiative. Households can place two orders each month, which includes up to 10 free tests per month. Orders can be submitted online via sayyescovidhometest.org or the DOH COVID Hotline."

If someone does test positive for COVID it is important to stay home and continue to take all precautions necessary to keep you and those around you safe. 

People can also report their test results from an at-home test via the DOH hotline.


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