Polls of Americans show that many don’t trust the reporting of the number of COVID-19 deaths in the US. Stories continue to appear about suicides and murders being reported as COVID deaths. Now, it appears that news out of Colorado may back up those suspicious of inaccurate death counts.
Early in the morning on May 4, Cortez, Colorado police got a call about a man lying motionless on the ground in Cortez City Park. When they arrived, they found Sebastian Yellow lying dead on the ground. They declared him dead on the scene.
The Montezuma County Coroner, George Deavers, determined that Mr. Yellow had died of alcohol poisoning. Not much of a surprise, considering his blood alcohol was .55 percent. That’s nearly twice the lethal limit. Pretty cut and dry cause of death, right?
Wrong. Before Deavers could even sign off on the death certificate, Mr. Yellow’s death had been designated as COVID-19-related. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had spoken, and had updated their COVID-19 death count on their website accordingly. (1)
In a local nursing home, three residents passed away from causes completely unrelated to COVID-19. Doctors on site determined cause of death for each and reported it that way to the health department. But because each had tested positive for COVID-19, the deaths were reclassified as COVID-19-related.
How widespread has the misreporting of COVID-19 deaths in Colorado been? Officials were recently forced to admit that until May 15, almost a quarter of all reported COVID-19 deaths were misreported.
With the level of fear and uncertainty around this virus, this kind of statistical inflation is problematic, to be kind. Add to that the reality that this kind of statistical analysis and data gathering is central to running a health department, at any level, and we have to begin to wonder when the clown cars will arrive.
Colorado reported 1,150 COVID-19 deaths as of Friday, May 15. But it’s more accurate to say that number represents the number of Colorado citizens who have died of all causes while being positive for COVID-19. The problem? From every standard and in every imaginable way, there is a gulf of difference between that description and an actual cause of death of “COVID-19.”
So instead of 1,150 COVID-19 deaths, Colorado has 878. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that this misreporting is occurring across the country (it likely is, for a number of reasons.) That dovetails nicely with the CDC’s recent announcement, which was ignored by the breathless hair hats in the media, that they, too, are reducing their official COVID-19 death counts significantly.
The truth is pretty obvious. When you combine fully stoked panic about a “killer virus” with financial incentive to call deaths COVID-19-caused and bureaucratic incompetence (that’s pretty standard, again, at most levels of government,) you get the statistical version of a monkey poo-fight at the zoo.
You can read about the financial incentives to report deaths as COVID-related right here: Hospitals Get Paid More For COVID-19 Coronavirus Patients: Fact Check
There is a politically divided debate raging across the nation which revolves around the actual number of people killed by COVID-19. This kind of mess doesn’t help quell the fringes (on either side) in that debate.
Accurate reporting is key to so many aspects of the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Where and when to send personal protective equipment, how many ventilators are needed, and where and which areas of the country can stop hiding in their homes going broke are three big ones I can think of right off the bat.
Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the Colorado state epidemiologist, said “We recognize that there certainly has been confusion around this topic.” (2) Um, really? It would seem to me that the crux of Dr. Herlihy’s job would be getting this stuff right.
While I will not ascribe nefarious intent to any of the actions of public health officials, I do believe they allowed themselves to get caught up in the swirling panic of this crisis. When these things happen, we need our leaders and our smart people (too often not one and the same) to maintain clam and rise above the fray in order to find solutions that work.
The problem in Colorado, and apparently in other places as well, stems from two different systems for reporting COVID-19 deaths. One records the actual causes of death from death certificates issued by medical examiners, doctors and coroners. The second is connected to an epidemiological surveillance system. This one tracks the deaths of people diagnosed with COVID-19.
Since death certificate information takes weeks or even months to reach the federal governments epidemiological surveillance system, the higher numbers get reported first. As we know, once bad or shocking news is reported, it’s nearly impossible to get a correction made in any effective way. In the modern age of journalism, which has morphed into some kind of clickbait cult, corrections don’t pay unless they’re worse than the original news.
Many of the tracking systems in use by states have the same “glitch.” The reporting systems of the federal government also suffer from this. So every death of a COVID-19-positive person ends up reported as a COVID-19 death.
Imagine if we did that with the flu? Someone gets shot to death while they’re sick with the flu? Flu death. Drives off a cliff while having the flu? Flu death.
For me, this is a trust issue. If we can’t trust our public health officials to get reporting correct, how will we trust them the next time there’s a crisis and they tell us they’re “following the data?”
And that, my dear reader, is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Keep the faith and keep after it!