COVID-19 death numbers generate debate over accuracy

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New questions have emerged this week over the accuracy of the coronavirus death numbers.

The number of deaths caused by COVID-19 has sparked debate, with some claiming they are being undercounted, while others -- even top U.S. officials -- contending COVID-19 deaths are being inflated to make the pandemic seem worse, KOMO-TV in Washington state reported Wednesday.

As of Friday morning, COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. numbered 75,670. At the same time, more than 1.2 million people have tested positive for the disease.

St. Joseph County deputy health officer, Dr. Mark Fox, as he spoke to the media about COVID-19 in March.

St. Joseph County deputy health officer, Dr. Mark Fox, as he spoke to the media about COVID-19 in March. (St. Joseph County Health Department)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance to public health officials for certifying COVID-19 deaths, the station reported.

“If COVID–19 played a role in the death, this condition should be specified on the death certificate,” the CDC said. “In many cases, it is likely that it will be the [underlying cause of death], as it can lead to various life-threatening conditions, such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).”

When reporting the number of COVID-19 certified deaths, they may seem undercounted because the information usually lags a week or two, according to the CDC, KOMO reported.

Deputy St. Joseph County health officer Dr. Mark Fox expressed confidence that COVID-19 death numbers were accurate, while acknowledging that the reporting process can be tricky, WNDU-TV in Indiana reported on Monday.

Fox told the station that if a patient dies from a heart attack but has tested positive for COVID-19, it's up to that patient's physician to decide if it is coronavirus-related.

“I don't see the shifting estimates of number of deaths as a conspiracy,” he said.

Jonathan Temte, a University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health associate dean, explained why he believes the COVID-19 death numbers are accurate in an interview Friday with Wisconsin Public Radio.

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Temte said each week, the CDC reports the percentage of deaths in the U.S. due to pneumonia, influenza and now COVID-19. During the 2009-10 influenza season, 8.1 percent of people who died had either influenza or pneumonia. During 2017-18 those pneumonia- and flu-related deaths peaked at 10 percent.

But, he said, this year the week ending April 11 hit a record 23.5 percent of deaths by COVID-19, influenza or pneumonia compared to the total number of deaths, the station reported.

"That means that about 1 out of every 4 people in the U.S. that died that week died of influenza or pneumonia or COVID-19," Temte told the station, adding that influenza had largely gone away by then and wasn't circulating.

"I've never seen it look that bad," he said. "So the people who dismiss COVID-19 as being something that is hyper-inflated or not being hyped too much are unfortunately totally wrong."

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The station also quoted Temte saying that influenza deaths were based largely on estimates and COVID-19 deaths were based on actual numbers, so comparing the two really wasn’t fair.