Officials defend reporting of COVID-19 toll

Polis, health department respond to GOP lawmaker’s claim of inflation

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After a Colorado lawmaker questioned the state’s reporting of how many Coloradans have died from COVID-19, Gov. Jared Polis said he was frustrated with the discrepancy as well.

When Polis found out that people who tested positive but died of something else were included in the state’s death total, he said officials should report that total to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as is standard, but should also report to the public the lower number of deaths due directly to COVID-19, the governor said at a May 20 news conference.

In a May 15 news release, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment explained that its data included deaths among all people who had COVID-19 at the time of death.

That included deaths for which “the cause or causes may not have been attributed to COVID-19 on the death certificate,” the release said. “This is the standard way states report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

“We know this virus can be deadly and can complicate other serious medical conditions and hasten death,” Eric France, chief medical officer at the state health department, said in the release. “As public health practitioners, we need to look at data that helps us understand disease transmission and protect people.”

A day earlier, a Douglas County state lawmaker requested that the area’s district attorney investigate the state health department, accusing the agency of illegally changing death certificates.

State Rep. Mark Baisley, a Republican from Roxborough Park, made the request to 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler in a letter dated May 14, after a family forwarded Baisley a letter from a Centennial senior living facility that raised the question. The letter was from the senior living facility to residents.

“Falsely inflating the number of deaths due to COVID-19 adversely impacts the professional reputation of nursing homes, hospitals and health care workers while creating undue fear for families,” Baisley’s letter to Brauchler said.

The letter from Someren Glen, a senior living community with multiple levels of care, stated that the state health department planned to “override some of our attending physician’s rulings and reclassify some resident passings.”

In the health department’s news release, the department “emphasized that it does not unilaterally change information on death certificates and does not question or try to change a physician’s diagnosis or causes-of-death determination.”

It is not uncommon for state officials to use definitions that differ from death certificate coding, Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, told reporters on a May 20 news conference call.

As of May 15, the state reported 1,150 deaths among people who have COVID-19. The number of deaths confirmed to have been caused by COVID-19 was 878 as of May 9, as reported by the CDC, according to the news release. The data the state shares online, and to the CDC, is shared for disease-tracking purposes, the release said.

As of May 21 — reporting numbers received through May 20 — the Colorado totals had grown to 1,310 deaths among people who had COVID-19 and 1,062 deaths due to COVID-19.

“I think the more information we can provide, the greater the public trust, and we always want to err on the side of (transparency),” Polis said at the May 20 news conference. The state’s COVID-19 website “didn’t have racial data; we added that. It didn’t have enough geographic data; we added that.”

Neither method of counting deaths accounts for “people that we missed altogether, that probably died from COVID that aren’t included in any number because they haven’t been confirmed by a coroner or autopsy,” Polis said at a May 18 news conference.

He added: “The only number that’s not reported are the ones we don’t know about because we don’t know about them.”

The DA’s office announced May 15 that it would look into whether any death certificates were “willfully and falsely altered,” according to a release from the office. Misdemeanor charges could be filed if so.

The DA’s office had not given any updates about the case as of the morning of May 22, according to Vikki Migoya, spokeswoman for the office. She did not confirm whether the DA’s office was investigating the claim at that time.

“As always, at the conclusion of any legal proceedings, District Attorney Brauchler will be eager to answer any and all questions,” the office’s May 15 release said. “The integrity of the judicial process must come first.”

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