A Ouachita Parish official who spoke out last week about discrepancies in Louisiana Department of Health’s COVID-19 case totals can no longer speak about the matter. That’s the case because LDH forced the parish official to choose between silence or jeopardizing the safety of local first responders.
In an interview on the Moon Griffon Show last week, Ouachita Parish Homeland Security Director Neal Brown drew attention to inaccurate totals of COVID-19 cases when comparing the case count totals on LDH’s online Coronavirus dashboard to a private list of local COVID-19 test results the state provided to Brown.
Brown detailed conclusions he reached by reviewing the private list of people in Ouachita Parish who tested for COVID-19.
“It looks to me that roughly 15 percent is what it’s off by or double-counted,” Brown told Griffon, the radio show’s host. “We had people on there who were there four or five times and then they passed away.”
For example, on one day, LDH’s online Coronavirus dashboard showed 3,650 cases of COVID-19 in Ouachita Parish, but the private list sent by LDH showed only 3,520 cases, according to Brown. Brown said he reviewed the list and found 215 test results were from people already counted.
“Give or take 300 from the 3,650 that are on the dashboard,” Brown told Griffon. “That’s, what, 10 percent. You look at the entire state, and 10 percent is 10,000 or 12,000 people.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in March, Louisiana State Police and — later — the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association regularly obtained from LDH a private list showing who took the COVID-19 test in each of the state’s 64 parishes and whether those people tested positive or negative, according to parish officials. The sheriffs and/or the homeland security offices in each parish are responsible for protecting the list and providing the information on the list to first responders.
“It’s always been about getting the correct addresses and the correct names so our first responders know whether someone has COVID-19 when they need to interact with them and help them,” said Ouachita Parish Police Jury President Shane Smiley.
“And that was done because of the shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment).”
Smiley told The Ouachita Citizen earlier this week that he, Brown and Assistant District Attorney Jay Mitchell agreed Brown should sign the data sharing agreement and remain silent to ensure the safety of first responders.
“That was something LDH wanted in order for us to get numbers from LDH,” Smiley said.
When asked about the matter, Brown declined to comment.
Smiley, who also works as a local medical professional, pointed out that LDH most likely wanted officials in each parish to sign the data sharing agreement to comply with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).
Concerning Brown’s remarks on The Moon Griffon Show, Smiley voiced his support for Brown’s position based on discussions parish officials conducted at the parish Emergency Operations Center (EOC) about how to equip and protect local first responders.
“What he said was the truth,” Smiley said. “We had numbers that LDH gave us that did not match the dashboard. We have been aware we had discrepancies, or duplicates. We have been aware that some people have been tested as many as six times. I would say it was about a 12- to 15-percent margin of error.”
Referring to HIPAA, Brown has claimed he honored the protected medical information of people on the list. When asked, Smiley said he had seen Brown refer to the list at the EOC but believed Brown took efforts to protect the information on the list.
According to Smiley, parish officials were aware that some patients’ test results were being double-counted or more in LDH’s online Coronavirus dashboard since the beginning of the outbreak.
The controversy surrounding the duplication of test results in LDH’s COVID-19 data became an issue when Gov. John Bel Edwards allowed three parishes to avoid implementing his statewide mask mandate, according to Smiley. The mask mandate applied to all parishes except those where COVID-19 appeared in fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 people for the most recent two-week period.
“That’s where it all got started,” Smiley said. “As soon as we saw they didn’t have to do that because they were lower, I knew our case count might be lower, too, especially because of the duplicates, which we’ve known about since the beginning.”
The three parishes eligible to take advantage of the original exception to the mask mandate were Grant, Red River and West Feliciana.
Last month, Red River Parish Police Jury President Shawn Beard and Red River Homeland Security Director Shane Hubbard drew fire from LDH after they also claimed the state’s COVID-19 case numbers were inaccurate.
In a July 14 post on Facebook, Red River’s Homeland Security office wrote, “We receive a cumulative list each day of individuals that has tested positive. If an individual gets tested more than once to get a negative result in order to return to work and that test comes back positive that test is showing up as another COVID count number not back to the same individual.
“Sometimes these individuals take 1 to 4 tests and have multiple positives come back and those test results are being counted in the list as a new person. We have taken these multiple count instances out and it brings the Red River Parish count to 58 not 96.”
On The Moon Griffon Show last week, LaSalle Parish Sheriff Scott Franklin echoed a similar complaint.
“It didn’t take too long in the process for me to figure out what we were seeing was a far cry different from what LDH was telling us,” Franklin told Griffon. “My assistant homeland security director rakes over the list every day and she has it color coded, it looks like a Christmas tree, the people who have prison addresses, the people who have been counted twice, three times, four times, the ones with different addresses that don’t live here, that never lived here.”
In LaSalle Parish, some 40 percent of the cases on the private list provided by LDH were inaccurate and did not match LDH’s online dashboard, according to Franklin.
Franklin argued that if 40 percent of data in the private lists in each 50 small parishes was inaccurate, it was hard to imagine that LDH’s statewide total of COVID-19 cases was accurate.
“When you do the 50 small parishes, that is huge,” Franklin said.
Earlier this week, Edwards called for continued use of masks in public as he announced on Tuesday his plans to keep Louisiana in Phase Two of President Trump’s Opening Up America Again plan until Aug. 28.
“It’s not asking too much to ask people to wear a mask to protect others,” Edwards said. “It’s just being a good neighbor.”
Brown notified the Police Jury earlier this week that the number of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations had decreased.
Speaking of Monday’s numbers, Brown said, “We had zero deaths in the entire region, and that’s the first time in quite a while that we’ve had zero deaths in the region.”
“It is a slow, slow downward trend in COVID-positive,” Brown added.
In a news conference on Tuesday, Edwards acknowledged a downward trend across the state in test positive results, hospitalizations, and appearances of people with COVID-19-like symptoms in emergency room.
“We need for these modest improvements to continue,” Edwards said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this news report stated that Grant, Red River and West Feliciana parishes took advantage of the exception to the statewide mask mandate. That is incorrect. The three parishes were eligible, but each one did implement the exception. The Ouachita Citizen regrets the error.