Department of Health walks back comments on testing data

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Hours after the Capital-Star reported that Pennsylvania’s Department of Health was including results from an unreliable COVID-19 test in its daily testing updates, the agency reversed course on key remarks and said that information it provided the previous day was inaccurate. 

Health Department spokesman Nate Wardle told the Capital-Star in an email that he made a mistake when he said Thursday that an unknown number of Pennsylvania’s 300,000 negative COVID-19 test results came from antibody tests, rather than the diagnostic tests that are considered the “gold standard” for disease control. 

Wardle recanted those remarks Friday and said that all of Pennsylvania’s negative test results data came from diagnostic testing. 

The negative results being reported do not include negative serological tests,” Wardle said, using another term for antibody testing. He added: “I was under the impression that negative results included all negative results. That is not correct.”

The Capital-Star began reporting on the use of serological testing data on Thursday, the same day The Atlantic reported that Pennsylvania and a handful of other states were combining serological and diagnostic testing data against the advice of public health experts.

Wardle initially confirmed that the state reported results from both tests. 

He also said Thursday that the Health Department “did not have data on how many negative tests were from serology tests,” given the way that testing data is reported to the state, and that officials could not say how many of the state’s 300,000 negative test results came from antibody tests. 

Explaining the mistake Friday, Wardle denied that the inaccuracy came from another Department of Health staffer, and said he alone was responsible for the statements he provided to the Capital-Star. 

“I provided what I thought was accurate based on the extensive conversations I have been a part of, but the information was not,” Wardle said Friday, apologizing for the error. 

The new information about Pennsylvania’s testing data is likely to reassure public health experts, who were dubious of states that conflated data from the two types of tests.

But this isn’t the first time this week that the Health Department has had to walk back inaccurate information it released about COVID-19. 

As WHYY-FM reported Thursday, data the agency released on Tuesday about COVID-19 infections and deaths in nursing homes appeared to be “riddled with errors.”

State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine acknowledged that the dataset contained errors and said the agency would work to correct them, according to the investigative news site Spotlight PA. But officials proceeded to scrub erroneous figures without noting the changes or posting a disclaimer. 

Pa. changed the way it reports negative COVID-19 tests. But officials can’t say when it began or how many tests are affected