Do you want to delegitimize COVID-19 death tallies? Because this is how you delegitimize COVID-19 death tallies.
Palm Beach County, Florida, is home to 1.49 million residents. It’s one of the current hot spots in America’s fight against the novel coronavirus.
According to The Palm Beach Post, the county saw 761 new diagnosed cases reported Thursday along with 18 deaths. Officials have extended the county’s mask mandate an additional 30 days.
This is profoundly disturbing stuff, and no one can question the impact the virus is having on Florida. The question — as with so many places in America — is how good of a job the government is doing tracking deaths from the disease.
This is important for a whole host of reasons. It allows us to know how deadly the disease is, who we should be contact tracing and where the disease is most prevalent. Errors are inevitable, and individual deaths may only be a single dot in a pointillistic epidemiological portrait.
Get enough points wrong, however, and the picture you’re looking at is a lot different.
That’s why an investigation by West Palm Beach’s WPEC-TV, published Thursday, is of considerable interest. The station looked into the county’s medical examiner records and the deaths listed as being caused by COVID-19.
Among them, according to the outlet, were a 60-year-old man who died after being shot in the head, a 77-year-old woman whose death was caused by Parkinson’s disease, and a 90-year-old man who died from complications from a hip fracture caused in a fall.
The disturbing thing was how simple the investigation was. They requested — and received — a list of all the deaths in the county where the decedent was said to have died of COVID-19.
They received a spreadsheet of 581 persons. All of them were supposed to have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Beyond this, there were issues.
For starters, the list contained a cause of death and contributing factors to the death. Logically speaking, if you die of COVID-19, then COVID-19 should be the main cause of death listed, or at the very least a contributing factor provided.
“The I-Team found eight cases in which a person was counted as a COVID death but did not have COVID listed as a cause of contributing cause of death,” the outlet reported.
Only 169 deaths, meanwhile, had COVID-19 listed as the only cause without any contributing factors — not a surprise, perhaps, given the disease tends to strike those with pre-existing conditions the hardest.
More problematic are the COVID deaths that weren’t actually caused by COVID — like, say, someone being shot in the head.
“I think it is completely misleading,” said Palm Beach County resident Rachel Eade, who’s been looking into the same issue and is one of the plaintiffs suing the county over its mask requirements.
“We need to remove those cases that are not COVID exclusive, and we need to be giving people that information,” she added.
This isn’t endemic to just Palm Beach County, either. The state’s COVID-19 death reporting laxity came to the public’s attention in a way that only be described, sadly, as stereotypically Floridian.
Last week, WOFL-TV in Orlando was questioning Orange County Health Officer Dr. Raul Pino about whether two COVID-19 victims in their 20s had any underlying conditions that might have contributed to their deaths.
“The first one didn’t have any,” Pino said. “He died in a motorcycle accident.”
Pino said he’d asked the state to remove the man from the COVID-19 death tally. On July 18, someone from Pino’s office confirmed that the death “was reviewed and he was taken off the list for COVID fatalities.”
On July 13, meanwhile, WOFL reported “[c]ountless labs have reported a 100 percent positivity rate, which means every single person tested was positive. Other labs had very high positivity rates. FOX 35 News found that testing sites like one local Centra Care reported that 83 people were tested and all tested positive. Then, NCF Diagnostics in Alachua reported 88 percent of tests were positive.”
One lab reported a 98 percent positive rate. After being contacted by WOFL, they revised that downward to 9.4 percent.
The Orlando Veteran’s Medical Center’s 76 percent positivity rate also took a steep dive after the station contacted them, instead becoming 6 percent.
The Florida Department of Health said this was because some smaller private labs weren’t reporting negative data to the state.
“The Department immediately began working with those labs to ensure that all results were being reported in order to provide comprehensive and transparent data,” a Department of Health spokesperson said.
“As the state continues to receive results from various labs, the Department will continue educating these labs on proper protocol for reporting COVID-19 test results.”
For the most part, COVID-19 deaths in Florida aren’t the chimerical result of gunshot victims and dead motorcyclists being lumped into a larger whole, and bad test result reporting doesn’t mean things are suddenly rosier than they appear.
What it does mean is that, in the midst of a pandemic where accurate record-keeping is of the utmost importance, we’re seeing cavalier sloppiness. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has promised to look into the issue.
“I think the public, when they see the fatality figures, they want to know who died because they caught COVID,” DeSantis said recently.
“If you’re just in a car accident — and we have had other instances where there is no real relationship and it’s been counted, we want to look at that and see how pervasive that issue is as well.”
He’s right — and other states ought to take a close look at this, as well.
It’s not just a matter of fighting the coronavirus. It’s knowing what we’re fighting and who’s died of it.
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