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Massachusetts health department admits 'significant overcount' of COVID-19 deaths — and the number could still be much too high

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JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

The Massachusetts Department of Health announced this week that it would be tweaking its health tracking methodology after the approach led to a "significant overcount" in COVID-19 deaths in the state.

In a press release Thursday, the department acknowledged it would be retroactively removing 4,081 deaths from the state's overall count while adding 400 deaths, making the net change a decrease of roughly 3,700.

The overcount was reportedly the result of a faulty criterion for inclusions that logged deaths as resulting from COVID-19 if the individual had a confirmed positive test within a certain timeframe prior to their passing.

The State House News Service reported that under the old methodology, Massachusetts deemed a fatality COVID-related if it met at least one of three criteria:

  1. A case investigation determined the virus "caused" or "contributed" to the death;
  2. The death certificate listed COVID-19 or an "equivalent term" as the cause; or
  3. The deceased individual had a COVID-19 diagnosis within 60 days of death.

In accordance with guidance from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the department decided to cut that timeframe in half. Moving forward, the state will log a COVID-19 death insofar as the individual had a confirmed positive test within 30 days of their passing.

"This strategy worked well at the beginning of the pandemic," Public Health Commissioner Margret Cooke told the outlet. "But over time, our approach proved to be too expansive and led to a significant overcount of deaths in Massachusetts. People who had gotten COVID earlier in 2020 and died for other reasons ended up still being included in COVID-associated death counts."

Critics will note that the state's new methodology — though an improvement — will likely still produce inflated results since, remarkably, it continues to log deaths as COVID-19 deaths so long as the deceased merely presented with an infection before they passed away, regardless of whether the virus could be determined as an actual cause of death.

Notwithstanding, state epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown said the update will "make sure that what we are capturing is the acute impact of COVID."

"People who are seriously ill and hospitalized for longer and end up dying after that 30 days have almost invariably had COVID listed on their death certificate, so they end up being counted under another method," she explained.

As of the time of this article's publication, more than 23,000 COVID-related deaths had been reported in Massachusetts. The department has not made clear how many COVID-19 deaths out of the whole have been counted using the infection timeframe criterion.

TheBlaze reached out to the Massachusetts Department of Health requesting that information and will update this article if it becomes available.

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