Centura Health failed to report nearly 2,500 COVID-19 hospitalizations dating back to April across the state, most of which happened this fall as cases spiked in Colorado, and hospital staff members and state health officials refuse to explain at length what happened.
And now, local elected officials and public health representatives are concerned the major data gap may have wrongly influenced key decision-making by Gov. Jared Polis and the state, namely the recent easing of regulations last week.
“It’s disturbing the lack of reporting was during a critical period of time,” said Durango Mayor Dean Brookie. “I want to trust our health care providers, but this discovery is a little disturbing.”
On Tuesday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released a statement that said Centura Health failed to report 2,450 hospitalizations from COVID-19, dating back to April.
State records show the vast majority of those missing hospitalization reports happened in October, November and December, a time when Colorado case counts of COVID-19 were surging.
Polis said last week the state’s declining hospitalization rate was, in part, one of the reasons justifying the move from Level Red to Level Orange. The Governor’s Office did not grant The Durango Herald an interview this week.
Explaining the error, CDPHE wrote in the release that it was the result of “a quality control system established by local public health agencies and the state.”
“It revealed that some of (Centura Health’s) hospitalizations weren’t making it into the COPHS (COVID Patient Hospitalization Surveillance) because of some hospital coding issues, which have been fixed,” CDPHE wrote.
CDPHE declined to provide an interview with the Herald on the matter. In an emailed statement, the department said “the added hospitalizations … did not/would not have affected any dial movement if reported correctly at the onset.”
From October to December, Centura Health failed to report more than 1,600 hospitalizations across the state.
Centura Health also did not grant an interview with the Herald this week. Centura owns 17 hospitals across Colorado and western Kansas, including Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango.
In a brief statement, Centura Health spokeswoman Lindsay Radford said there was an “oversight” of a coding issue that resulted in hospitalizations not being reported to the state.
“Once we learned of this discrepancy, we quickly resolved it,” she said.
The fact that nearly 2,500 hospitalizations were missed dating back to April has led to confusion and concerns about the accuracy of reporting, according to local elected officials and public health representatives.
With about 19,000 hospitalizations statewide, the missing reports account for nearly 13% of hospitalizations.
“Every decision we’ve made since April has been made on faulty data,” La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens said at a board meeting Wednesday.
For months, Southwest Colorado officials have demanded Mercy Regional Medical Center be more transparent about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The situation reached a fever pitch in December, when elected officials grilled Centura and Mercy representatives at a public hearing, demanding the hospital share data such as ICU bed capacity and hospitalizations.
“You tend to think you’re being transparent,” Durango City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy said at the time, “but it’s not been transparent, and perception is reality.”
Mercy officials said they report hospitalization numbers to the state of Colorado twice a day, and repeated those numbers are available on a network called EMResource.
But EMResource is not available to the public. San Juan Basin Public Health Executive Director Liane Jollon said the local health department also has limited access to the data and what it can share.
At a county board meeting Wednesday, Jollon said she directed her staff last month to try again to reach out to CDPHE to obtain better access to hospitalization rates.
That effort, Jollon said, was successful. But when her staff members went to review the data set on Dec. 22, they discovered Centura Health had not entered a single hospitalization since May.
SJBPH staff members were unable to get clarification from Centura or the state for the apparent discrepancy. Jollon then brought it to the attention of high-ranking officials at those organizations, but still was not provided an explanation.
Then on Tuesday, CDPHE released its statement.
What’s alarming, local officials said, is that hospitalization rates play a significant role in making decisions about what level of public health orders a community should be in, which in turn, has an impact on businesses and how they operate.
“We need the right information to do the right actions,” Jollon said. “We need the confidence these decisions are made with accurate data sets.”
Rhonda Webb, CEO of Pagosa Springs Medical Center, said she checks Mercy’s hospitalization reports daily to determine whether the facility in Durango has the capacity to take patients who require a transfer.
“We rely on that data so we know where to put patients,” she said.
Webb called the situation concerning, but given the fact that hospitalizations change minute to minute, Pagosa Springs Medical Center staff members would call Mercy regardless to see if the facility was able to take transfer patients.
“I like to know if I need to worry about transferring patients,” she said.
Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, is one of the leads on modeling the pandemic in the state. He said hospitalizations are one of the “key data” sets for modeling the COVID-19 trends.
“We use hospitalizations as the measure for what’s happening with the pandemic,” Samet said. “We feel like it gives us the best picture where the epidemic is in Colorado.”
Samet said, however, that he uses a separate data set for modeling provided by CDPHE that was not impacted by Centura Health’s misreporting. Samet also said Polis uses the same unaffected data set for making public health decisions.
Samet said the unaffected data set is EMResource. The one impacted is called COVID Patient Hospitalization Surveillance.
It’s unclear then how CDPHE did not recognize a discrepancy of nearly 2,500 hospitalizations between the two data sets. Samet directed further inquires to CDPHE, which, again, did not grant an interview.
CDPHE’s news release Tuesday did not help clarify the situation, and Jollon said SJBPH staff members are meeting with the agency Monday. And it couldn’t come sooner as Colorado could be entering a surge of cases after the holidays.
“There’s still a tremendous concern that Colorado, like any other state, could experience a winter surge,” Jollon said. “If that’s the case, we need to pay close attention to our medical capacity.”