Earlier this week, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted to challenge a part of Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to reopen counties during the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing a data algorithm unfairly penalizes the county.
According to the raw numbers, Kern County is currently meeting the data targets that would allow it to advance to the next tier of Newsom’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. The guidelines, which color code each county according to its progress toward containing the virus, aimed to streamline the reopening process by relying on only two data measures: Each county’s case rate, or the number of positive cases per 100,000 residents; and its positivity rate, the proportion of tests that come back positive.
There's a snag, however: A week after announcing the new blueprint, Newsom announced that the state would actually adjust those raw numbers using an algorithm based on testing rates. Each county’s case rate gets bumped up or down depending on how their testing rates compare to other counties.
For the week ending Sept. 12, Kern residents got tested at a rate far lower than the state median, and so its raw case rate—6.3 per 100,000—was inflated to 7.2 per 100,000. Because counties in the purple or most restrictive tier must attain a case rate of 7 per 100,000 or lower in order to advance to the red tier, County Administrator Ryan Alsop argues that the case rate adjustment holds the county back, according to an arbitrary testing target that holds no clinical relevance.
“This new criteria unnecessarily burdens our residents, parents and children, further slowing business and school reopening,” Alsop said during a media call last week, adding that this data algorithm is equivalent to moving the goalposts. “It unnecessarily and arbitrarily penalizes counties who have little to no control over voluntary and individual decision-making relative to testing for COVID-19.”
The new algorithm could be interpreted as encouraging healthy people to get tested for the virus, which would contradict earlier messaging from the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about prioritizing limited testing supplies for frontline workers and those with symptoms. That’s “why I expressed frustration, why our board’s frustrated, why I expressed frustration last week, why our board of supervisors is frustrated, why our public health team is frustrated,” Alsop said.
In an interview, Health Officer Matt Constantine said the county has the capacity for much more widespread testing, but the problem is that Kern residents just aren’t coming in to the county's nine public testing sites. “We have seen a pretty consistent downturn in testing demand here locally,” he said. For instance, county data show that for the 3-week period ending on September 18, the testing site in Lake Isabella had a utilization rate of 25 percent, and in Taft, only 17 percent. “They’re all significantly down, and most are below 50 percent,” Constantine said.
Also at issue is the testing standard to which counties are being held. The state has opted to weigh counties’ progress against the median testing rate of all of the state’s 58 counties, a measure that’s recalculated every month, rather than establishing a stationary testing goal that counties can consistently work toward. “This statewide testing rate average is a moving target, and is not based on any clinically relevant data or information,” said Alsop.
“Give us a target, tell us why it makes sense, show us the science, ask us to achieve it,” agreed Constantine. “Then once we achieve it, let’s then carefully reopen different sectors and carefully watch and monitor how they do and if we’re successful let’s continue on.” Currently, according to county calculations, an additional 690 Kern residents would need to opt for a test each day to meet state goals.
In an email, the state defended how it adjusts counties’ case rates, arguing for the importance of continued testing and explaining that its methodology was refined with feedback from local health departments. “Ensuring adequate testing volume remains critical to case identification and interruption of disease transmission, particularly in communities with high test positivity,” the statement reads. “The median testing volume thus forms an anchor for this adjustment and is recalculated every four weeks to prevent undue fluctuation while remaining sensitive to evolving testing trends.”
On Tuesday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to send Newsom a letter that, among other things, demands that he do away with these data adjustments and that he work more closely with counties in reopening businesses and schools.
In the meantime, Alsop and Constantine are urging county employees to get tested often, and they’re encouraging other major employers to do the same. As an incentive, the president of the Bakersfield Condors announced on Thursday that they’ll be sponsoring a drawing for free tickets to events in 2021 for those who demonstrate they’ve been tested.
When asked whether these incentives amount to gaming the testing system, Constantine replied: Not at all. “That’s what the Governor was asking for us to do, was to look for creative ways to further testing,” he said. “I think it’s pretty consistent with what the request has been from the state.”