State labels how bad COVID-19 is in Lexington using old case counts. Why it matters.

Kentucky has determined Lexington’s COVID-19 spread to be “critical” again even though the city’s case counts are among the lowest they have been in months.

Gov. Andy Beshear on Thursday blamed the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department for the discrepancy that can affect schools, students and athletics.

Lexington’s “incidence rate” over the last seven days is 28, according to the state Department for Public Health, which puts the county in the worst — red — category. Gov. Andy Beshear’s office recommends counties in the “red zone” avoid in-person schooling. Red zone areas also are advised to cancel sporting events, according to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.

But the city’s updated incidence rate over the last seven days is actually 22.3, according to current daily case numbers from the Lexington-Fayette health department. That would put Lexington in the “orange zone.” The orange category doesn’t call for canceling in-person instruction or sporting events, according to Beshear and KHSAA.

“The reason that the state information lags is that the Fayette County health department is one of the slower in the state about actually updating that information,” Beshear said. “And the answer to not getting that data in fast enough is not ‘don’t follow the state recommendations with the state data,’ it’s fix the problem.”

Fayette County Public Schools has a potential plan to allow small groups of elementary school students back into classrooms the week of Oct. 19. Schools in Fayette County — and across Kentucky — have continued to play football despite the red zone classification. But schools from other counties have canceled games with Fayette County schools due to the high COVID-19 concern.

The local health department didn’t deny that there is a lag in getting the data to the state. Case counts are initially handled by the Fayette health department, and it has to log updated counts into a database for the state, spokesman Kevin Hall said.

“The delay is from the continued growth in cases with the ongoing need to increase staffing to enter the data,” Hall said previously. “Another part of the problem is also that the majority of our cases are not reported through electronic lab reports, so they have to be manually entered. The state and local health departments are working on this issue.”

The data drives the state health department’s incidence rate map that categorizes the severity of COVID-19 spread in each county. The color-coded zones allow the state to easily offer guidance for schools on holding in-person classes or sporting events. The state defines “incidence rate” as the average number of new cases per 100,000 residents each day over the previous seven days.

Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack said Thursday that the discrepancy in data isn’t significant because the seven-day rolling average helps reduce the impact of outlying numbers.

“If you’re red at 25.1 or you’re orange at 24.6, you’re at the top of the scale,” Stack said. “That’s the takeaway … you’ve got to be careful. You have a lot of disease.”

Stack said the lag in data could be as long as three days. But the Lexington-Fayette health department said the data could be as much as three weeks behind, which would mean the state health department is just now reporting some of Lexington’s largest case increases. The city reported 123 cases on Sept. 9, 149 cases on Sept. 10, 167 cases on Sept. 11 and 108 cases on Sept. 12. The 167 cases was a one-day record for the city.

Beshear reported more than 140 cases for Fayette County on consecutive days this week, but the local health department has reported fewer than 90 new cases each of the past five days. When the state first started reporting the incidence rate, Lexington’s virus spread was actually twice as bad as what the state was reporting.

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