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Glitch Sends False COVID-19 Test Results to N.C. Residents

Texts and emails to more than 6,700 Mecklenburg County residents alerted them to erroneous positive coronavirus tests. County health officials say the messages were the result of a technical glitch.

by Hannah Smoot and Alison Kuznitz, The Charlotte Observer / September 15, 2020
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) — More than 6,700 people in Mecklenburg County received text messages from the county Health Department on Friday that they had tested positive for COVID-19. And more than 500 people were told the same news via a county email.

But it was a mistake.

It’s not known how many of the thousands who received the messages actually have COVID-19, had tested positive at one point or never had the coronavirus. Regardless, none of them should have gotten such a text or email from the county, because the county does not give people results that way.

At 9:30 a.m. Friday, the county tweeted that those messages from the health department were a scam: “Public Health does not send out COVID-19 testing results via text message.”

But five hours later, the county updated its tweet: “These texts were sent due to a technical glitch in the software system that has been addressed by the software provider.”

In an email Monday, County Manager Dena Diorio told county commissioners that the texts were sent through British Columbia-based HealthSpace Data System.

The county began using software from the Canadian company in late May to help with case investigation and contact tracing efforts — part of a contract worth $157,800 over five years.

Diorio said 6,727 text messages and 541 emails were sent to people who were already in HealthSpace’s system. That means they could have tested positive for COVID-19 once — and likely already recovered — or they are thought to have had close contact with someone who had the novel coronavirus.

The vendor sent a corrected text or email to everyone who had received incorrect information, Diorio said in the email to commissioners. It was not known whether some people got erroneous texts as well as emails.

“We apologize for any alarm this caused citizens who were not supposed to be sent an alert or survey,” HealthSpace CEO Silas Garrison said in a statement on Friday.

Contract tracing problems

Friday’s error was another stumbling block for contact tracing, where the public is asked to provide confidential health information in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Case investigators — the first layer in the contact tracing process — are trained to probe for contacts’ names, employers, phone numbers and home addresses, among other details.

Contact tracers then use that information to call people who potentially were exposed. The county uses HealthSpace software to automate some portions of the contact tracing process.

From the start of the pandemic, Mecklenburg Public Health Director Gibbie Harris has detailed residents’ mistrust or unwillingness to comply with contract tracers.

The difficulty of tracing can be exacerbated by the scope of coronavirus cases, with Mecklenburg now recording more than 27,000 infections.

©2020 The Charlotte Observer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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