After delays in receiving the accurate number of Purdue athletes who had tested positive for the coronavirus raised alarm among county health officials on Friday, the Tippecanoe County Health Department aims to partner with Purdue to create a local “backup” system for monitoring positive cases.
Khala Hochstedler, the health department’s lead nursing supervisor, noted a discrepancy between the results Purdue Athletics reported to the Indiana State Department of Health and the data it shared in a press release on Friday.
The press release said that 27 athletes, staff members and coaches had tested positive for the virus. Data that filters down to the county health department from ISDH tallied only four cases among student-athletes; the county does not keep tabs on non-students.
“We run a report from the state database every day and then we go through it and see during the investigation where they worked, if they're students,” Hochstedler said Friday. “There is definitely a glitch in the system that needs to be fixed before the rest of the students return and before we start athletic seasons.”
Purdue Athletics and the Protect Purdue Health Center both report separately to the state department of health, and data is then distributed to the county level. Hochstedler had been hearing rumors of dozens of positive cases among student-athletes, she said, but as of Thursday had only four on record from the ISDH reports.
Hochstedler contacted the Purdue pharmacy, where testing occurs, and received a list of 21 student-athletes who had tested positive. Seventeen cases among students had gone undetected by ISDH and the county health department because of faulty reporting.
Apparently Purdue Athletics “sent those results to the state and they somehow got lost in the shuffle,” health department executive assistant Amanda Balser said after Wednesday’s coronavirus press conference hosted by the county health department.
"They thought those cases were being reported to the state and they were not," she added.
The remaining six cases mentioned in the Friday press release were members of Purdue Athletics but not students, Balser and Hochstedler said.
Balser said it’s unclear whether the results were mishandled at Purdue testing facilities or in transit to the state’s centralized accounting system. Either way, the results were incomplete until Tuesday night, she said, when additional cases flowed from ISDH into the county’s system.
Thirty student-athletes have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, Balser said, meaning nine new positive tests have been confirmed this week. The first positive case was reported by Purdue Athletics on June 25, according to previous Exponent reporting.
Balser said clusters of tests occurred on June 30, July 7 and July 14 as athletes arrived back to campus in the last three phases of a five-phase system. Women's basketball players arrived in the third phase on June 30, followed by volleyball players and members of the women's soccer team in the final two phases.
When it was reported that 27 members of the athletic department tested positive on Friday, only five active cases remained, the release noted. Purdue's testing returns results within 48 hours, which means positive tests went unrecognized for weeks as people recovered, Balser said.
Tippecanoe County Health Officer Dr. Jeremy Adler recently met with Dr. Carly Day, head team physician within Purdue Athletics, to address the discrepancy in numbers and to create a system that reports directly to the county, Balser said. Day agreed to the backup system, Balser added.
“I think the state department of health is getting inundated with a lot of data and there could be a delay in them sifting through that data and getting it to the right place,” Adler said. “And so we want to try to reduce any chances that something falls through the cracks.”
Associate Athletic Director Kassidie Blackstock said Wednesday afternoon she would look into the issue and provide a response later this week when asked for comment.
In an email sent Thursday, Blackstock said Purdue has complied with all ISDH reporting directives. She confirmed that the athletic department conferred with the health department to reconcile each entity's numbers shortly after Purdue Athletics' Friday press release.
Blackstock said Purdue Athletics reported all positive tests to the Indiana State Department of Health via fax "within 6 hours of confirming the results."
Blackstock added that the results Purdue released last Friday included not only testing conducted at Purdue but elsewhere. "Not all positive results were reportable in Tippecanoe County," she said.
When asked to elaborate what it means that positive cases within Purdue Athletics cannot be reported in Tippecanoe County, as well as to confirm that the health department met with Purdue Athletics to discuss a backup system of reporting, Blackstock declined to comment further on Friday.
The weekslong delay in reporting presents a host of issues to health departments attempting to crack down on the spread of the disease, Adler said. Without an immediate response of isolating and tracing close contacts of COVID-19 carriers, measures to protect others from the spread are difficult to implement.
“It’s not just about the individual who tested positive, it’s about the others around them, their close contacts,” he said. “Who needs to be quarantined? Who needs to be monitored for symptoms? Getting that information quickly really makes a big difference in terms of reducing the spread of the disease.”
Dr. Esteban Ramirez, chief medical officer of the Protect Purdue Health Center, said he is not involved in the systems Purdue Athletics uses to report cases of the virus. The NCAA has its own set of rules to govern the methods by which sports teams operate.
Adler plans to implement a similar dual system of reporting with the PPHC. Ramirez confirmed Friday that the health center will begin to sent data directly to the county health department alongside the numbers it sends to ISDH.