California County Inflates COVID-19 Deaths By 25%

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California Governor Gavin Newsom has been criticized for how he has handled the pandemic.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has been criticized for how he has handled the pandemic. (Image: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Two counties recently admitted that their COVID-19 death counts were inflated; they have updated the report with new numbers that are significantly lower. Santa Clara and Alameda, both in California, have lowered their death figures by over 20 percent.

Santa Clara used to include deaths of COVID-19 patients even though they might not have died from the infection. The recount only counts deaths that directly resulted from the infection. The new counting method led to figures dropping from 2,201 to 1,696, 505 deaths, an almost 23 percent reduction.

“It is important to go back and do this accounting to see if COVID was actually the cause of death… I think that transparent communication is an upside, I mean, in the sense that it’s true that if we did this across the nation, it would bring our death rate lower. A downside of that could be that people will say, ‘Well, it wasn’t as serious as you said’,” Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, told CBS Local.

Gandhi thinks that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) might soon require all counties in the country to review their COVID-19 death counts.

On June 4, Alameda County issued a press release stating that COVID-19 death figures up until May 23 were changed to 1,223. That was down from 1,634, a decline of 411 deaths, amounting to 25.1 percent.

“Alameda County previously included any person who died while infected with the virus in the total COVID-19 deaths for the County… Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused nearly 600,000 deaths in the United States, the vast majority of infections do not result in death, and deaths due to other causes while infected with COVID-19 are not uncommon,” the press release stated.

To illustrate the statistical discrepancies, the county gave an example of a COVID-19 patient who died in a car crash. According to the old method, this person’s death would be included under COVID-19 deaths. But in the new method, it wouldn’t be included since the person didn’t die due to the coronavirus infection.

This isn’t the first time the COVID-19 death counts have been criticized. In May 2020, Freedom Foundation published a report revealing that the Washington State Department of Health had inflated coronavirus death statistics by “as much as 13 percent.”

As of May 8, the department had reported 828 such deaths. Eighty-two percent or 681 deaths had COVID-19 listed as the cause; five percent (41 deaths) listed COVID-19 only as a “significant condition” that contributed to the death; 13 percent (106 deaths) involved people who contracted the coronavirus but did not have COVID-19 listed as the reason for the death.

The false death count “calls into question the trustworthiness of government officials directing the COVID-19 response,” the organization said in the report.

Last July, health officials from Orlando, Florida, had included a motorcycle crash victim among COVID-19 fatalities. Once Fox 35 investigated the matter, the person was removed from the coronavirus death list.

In December, a coroner at Grand County, Colorado, raised concerns about how the state health department classified two victims of gunshot wounds as COVID-19 deaths. In an interview with CBS Local, the coroner stated that the two victims had tested positive for coronavirus within the previous 30 days.

“It’s absurd that they would even put that on there… We don’t have [a high COVID-19 death count], and we don’t need those numbers inflated,” the coroner said to the media outlet.

Counting method discrepancy

In April 2020, Nina Schwalbe, a Principal Visiting Fellow of United Nations University International Institute for Global Health, warned that some nations might be “vastly overestimating” the COVID-19 death rate. 

In an article published on the World Economic Forum website, Schwalbe said that many countries only counted people sick enough to go to the hospital for their data rather than everyone who was actually infected.

The COVID-19 fatality rate is derived by dividing the number of COVID-19 deaths (numerator) by the COVID-19 infected rate (denominator). Since only a smaller number of people are counted in the denominator, the COVID-19 death rate would be higher than the actual rate.

For instance, if 100 people were infected with coronavirus but only 40 visited a hospital, just 40 people would be classified among COVID-19 infections since health authorities are unaware of the remaining 60 cases. 

If four people were to die, the COVID-19 death rate would be calculated as four divided by 40 multiplied by 100, resulting in a fatality rate of 10 percent. However, the real calculation should be four divided by 100 (actual COVID-19 infections) multiplied by 100, which would give a fatality rate of just four percent.

“By only counting people who go to the hospital, we are overestimating the percentage of infected people who die of COVID-19. It’s a dangerous message that is causing fear—and it is all driven by a false denominator,” Schwalbe wrote.