While Covid-19 deaths head lower and there are raising hopes the United States is turning a corner as vaccinations continue, states around the country are steadily finding previously unreported deaths that are causing data confusion, a media report said on Monday.
“The issues largely involve systems that states are using to try to report Covid-19 data in near real time, and not deaths reported more slowly through death certificates,” said the paper.
These front-line numbers are the ones that fuel state dashboards and data trackers, like the closely watched one created by Johns Hopkins University, which help policy makers and the public closely monitor pandemic trends, the Xinhua news agency reported.
Ohio in February announced more than 4,000 additional deaths while reconciling its data, and Indiana added about 1,500. Smaller revisions have also recently come from Virginia, Minnesota and Rhode Island. On Thursday, authorities in West Virginia said medical providers hadn’t properly reported 168 deaths to the state’s public-health department, the report said.
“Nobody likes surprises, and nobody likes data that’s wrong because that’s what drives decisions,” said Ayne Amjad, West Virginia’s state health officer.
These issues underscore ways in which Covid-19 can still challenge data-reporting systems in the United States. Like many countries, the US is trying to track pandemic events nearly as they happen, and a big part of this effort has required speeding up how deaths are reported.
The above state fixes aren’t filling in major gaps in what researchers believe is a significant undercount of Covid-19 deaths. This is underscored by a wide gap between known Covid-19 deaths and excess deaths, or deaths above average levels in recent years.
The big changes at the state level can create at least temporary, and artificial, bulges in the data that Johns Hopkins and others are knitting together to show daily trends, the report said.
Misreporting Covid-19 deaths was particularly likely early in the pandemic, when testing was scarce and doctors filling out death certificates were less familiar with the disease, according to public-health experts. They have also chalked up some excess deaths to other issues, such as people avoiding hospitals during health emergencies.
Matching front-line surveillance data with death certificates can improve data in both systems, and can sometimes lead to rewritten certificates, said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality-statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But changing death certificates isn’t easy, he said. The person who filled out the death certificate – often a doctor – has to agree to amend the record.
As of Monday noon, the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University reported 534,946 Covid-19 deaths and almost 29.5 million confirmed cases in the US, both the worst in the world.