By Caleb Lunetta and Tammy Murga
The L.A. County Department of Public Health has updated its latest COVID-19 case counts for two Santa Clarita Valley regions after a correctional facility outbreak in Castaic was mistakenly attributed to the Val Verde community, which officials said Thursday was due to a geo-mapping system error.
After having seen a spike in diagnoses over the course of several days, Val Verde’s total confirmed tally dropped from 118 cases from Thursday to four on Friday. On those same days, Castaic jumped from 25 to 163.
The 24-hour change comes after county officials acknowledged the mislabeling in response to questions from The Signal’s reports on Wednesday that cited Public Health officials attributing an outbreak at the Pitchess Detention Center to Val Verde, a community of about 3,000 residents several miles west of Castaic.
“I want to apologize to community members who of course look at that and get fearful. We are working on trying to split out information that, as you noted, are capturing cases that are primarily happening in an institutional setting as opposed to a community setting. That’s complicated,” Barbara Ferrer, director of Public Health, said during the county’s daily briefing.
The county uses a geo-mapping system to keep track of cases by inputting a description of a location, such as a physical address or name of a place, onto a map. This process is called geocoding.
The attribution error came as the geocoder incorrectly inputted the Pitchess Detention Center into Val Verde rather than Castaic, according to DPH media in an email.
“The geocoder was assigning the latitude/longitude coordinates imprecisely so that the coordinates assigned were on the other side of the boundary line between Val Verde and Castaic,” read the statement.
Friday’s tally showed that PDC had a total of six staff and 19 inmates who are COVID-19 positive, and North County Correctional Facility, the maximum-security jail on PDC’s campus, had two staff members and 122 inmates who tested positive.
The number of cases in the correctional facility, which are now being attributed to Castaic’s total, reached 149 on Friday. That leaves 14 cases actually in the community of Castaic, outside the jail.
Public Health is listing the total number of cases at PDC and the NCCF individually, as well as including them under the Castaic tally.
To distinguish how many of Castaic’s total count is attributed to the jail and how many to the community, Dr. Sharon Balter, director of Public Health’s Acute Communicable Disease Control Program, said Friday during a call with The Signal that it is accurate to subtract both totals.
“I think that these institutions are in those communities. I think if we chose to remove the data from the community that also would trouble some people. They’d say, ‘Well, you’re not counting all of these cases,’” said Balter.
She added that this incident was the first brought to the department’s attention.
“This is the first time it’s been pointed out to us but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. They are looking into whether or not we need a new geocoder or what we need to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.