The New York Times COVID-19 tracker appears to show an April surge in Santa Cruz.
(Lookout screengrab of The New York Times website)

Why are the New York Times and others showing COVID case spikes in Santa Cruz? It comes down to fax machines

EXPLAINER: Some online COVID-19 trackers appear to show that Santa Cruz County is experiencing an April surge in cases. Can this possibly be true?

Many Santa Cruz County residents and Lookout readers have noticed a strange discrepancy in recent weeks: County health data has shown COVID-19 cases remaining at record lows here, but popular trackers from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are appearing to show a significant spike.

According to the New York Times, Santa Cruz is the third worst county in the state in terms of per capita cases. The paper’s tracker shows days in April with 40 or 70 cases, numbers that haven’t been seen here since the winter surge. On its website Wednesday, The Times showed residents here to be at a “very high risk” for exposure to the virus — one of only five California counties to be deemed as such.

The Los Angeles Times reports that 263 new cases have been confirmed in the last week, while county numbers show just 53.

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The explanation for the discrepancy is simple, and comes down to old-school technology and a quirk in data reporting.

There is no new surge

To assuage fears right off the bat: Santa Cruz is not experiencing a new surge. Instead, historical cases from the winter onslaught are just now being confirmed as the county catches up on paper records that were sent in months ago via fax.

County and state data records assign those new cases to the proper date — but many online trackers just look at the overall change in the number of cases.

Of the cases showing up as an April surge on media sites, “the majority of those are backdated from early November, end of December,” said Ramy Husseini, the health services manager for the Santa Cruz County communicable disease and population health units.

Some doctors’ offices weren’t equipped to report case information to the county electronically, and had to fax in their reports. “Those faxes kind of sat in a fax box, while our case coordination team — which I think we ended up quadrupling in size — had to go through them and actually manually input them,” Husseini said.

Santa Cruz County records each new case on its “episode date,” which is usually when the person first reported symptoms. But the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times collect the cases on the date they were reported.

Ben Welsh, the data and graphics editor at the Los Angeles Times, said the way he and his team collect their data for each California county is by going to the county health website and taking the total cumulative number of cases reported each day. They then calculate the difference between cases, and record that as the number of new cases for that day. So the number of cases they report per day is just the change in the total number of cases, whereas the county and the state report cases that were actually confirmed on that day.

Wilson Andrews, a graphics editor at the New York Times, confirmed that their tracker also records cases by the date they were reported, not the episode date.

For those who would like to see why this matters for themselves, the California data dashboard (which sometimes experiences technical difficulties) allows viewers to toggle between seeing confirmed cases in Santa Cruz by episode date (what the state and county health officials use) and reported date (what the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times use).

In the “Reported date” mode, the state data matches up more closely with the Times, and in the episode date it tracks closely with the county.

The bigger picture

Dr. David Ghilarducci, Santa Cruz County’s deputy health officer, said that the county public health team is confident in their numbers, which continue to show a “plateau” at low levels.

“Bottom line is I would trust our local numbers, each of these [recorded] cases is actually touched by a human that goes through, and looks at the data, and actually talks to the person,” Ghilarducci said.

He said that while the rate of confirmed cases went up slightly in the last week (which kept Santa Cruz from reaching the yellow tier of restrictions for now), this is likely just small variation in the plateau of low cases, and he is especially reassured that the positivity rate has stayed consistently low, around 1%. “We’re not seeing any evidence of a surge yet,” he said.