Local family questions accuracy of COVID death toll

— Created June 24, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

As of this writing, Island County has lost 12 people to COVID-19 and case numbers, which have held steady for several weeks, are once again ticking up.

One local family – who has asked not to be identified by name – is questioning the accuracy of how COVID-19 deaths are being reported. Family members said their loved one died from the disease in late March, but has not been included in the death toll, which they feel could give people a false sense of security when it comes to local public health and safety.

“Many people are not taking this pandemic seriously,” said a family spokesperson. “You hear it in conversations and see it in the way people are refusing to follow social distancing guidelines, and I believe part of the reason is they don’t know anyone who has been affected by the virus. Almost 100 percent of the people we’ve told about my [loved one’s] passing say we are the first people they know who have had a family member test positive, let alone pass away. Suddenly it becomes real for them. If our county numbers are inaccurately low, then it gives people a false sense of security and it makes it look like this is a problem somewhere else.”

According to the family, the victim, who had underlying health conditions, exhibited serious COVID-19 symptoms and was taken to WhidbeyHealth Medical Center in Coupeville, where she was tested for the virus. Hospital paperwork clearly states there was a positive COVID-19 test, but also indicates the test was inconclusive and classified it as a “presumptive positive.” A sample was sent to the Washington Public Health Laboratory (part of the State Department of Health), but the lab declined to perform confirmation testing.

So, despite a death certificate on which the patient’s cause of death is listed as “due to COVID-19,” she has not been included in Island County’s death toll, something that has proved to be very upsetting to the family and has been confusing to try to sort out. Whidbey Weekly has been looking into this for weeks, getting seemingly different responses to the same question.

“When COVID is listed as the cause of death or a contributing cause of death on a death certificate, it is included in the COVID related death data,” said Keith Higman, Island County Public Health director, who told Whidbey Weekly in the same email “Only confirmed cases of the disease that lead to death are reported as COVID related deaths.”

So is a death where COVID-19 is a suspected contributing factor counted in the death toll or not? The above response would seem to indicate this patient’s death should indeed be included. However, Higman later clarified that Island County Public Health could only include deaths in which a COVID-19 positive test result was confirmed.

“The CDC has adopted guidance to include deaths associated with COVID as those where lab confirmed results are available to confirm the presence of the disease,” he said. “We have been directed to not include presumptive or presumed as numbers to add to that category.”

By that reasoning, then, it would seem not all COVID related deaths are being reported properly. Suspected COVID related deaths, such as that of the Whidbey Island patient, are not being included. But the WAPHL declined to perform a test that could have confirmed this patient’s COVID-19 diagnosis.

The State Department of Health told Whidbey Weekly there are only a small number of such individuals.

“We have ~115 death where the certificate indicates the death may have been COVID 19 related, but we don’t have a positive test,” said Jamie Nixon, WADOH public information officer.We are including some deaths that will ultimately be determined to not be related to COVID19, and we are currently excluding deaths that will likely be determined to be due to COVID19.  As time passes, we will get further information on these deaths and we will be able to improve the accuracy of our counts.”

Nixon said the state is working to change how deaths – suspected and confirmed – will be reported, to more accurately reflect deaths where COVID-19 caused or contributed to a death.

“Reporting on deaths will be changing in the coming weeks as we work out how best to provide additional information,” he said.

That still leaves one family on Whidbey Island with a lot of unanswered questions.

” Why would WAPHL decline to perform a confirmation test on anyone?” said the family spokesperson. “Is that an arbitrary decision or one based upon some criteria?  We did not provided information about [my family member] to get information about her specific case but to show we have documentation of the state’s decision to decline further testing, which ultimately ensured she will never be officially counted as a COVID-19 death in Island County or the State of Washington. We would like to know why.  Was that done to keep the official count down?  How many other confirmation tests has WAPHL declined to perform?”

All of these questions were posed to the WADOH by the family, but a response was not received before Whidbey Weekly’s press deadline.

Changing how deaths are reported is a step in the right direction, according to the family. They said having their loved one’s death counted accurately is important not just to them, but to paint an accurate picture of COVID’s true cost.

“Her life had meaning,” said the spokesperson. “If her passing adds to the statistical severity of this pandemic and it helps one person take it seriously, then her death will have meaning.  Knowing her passing is properly counted will also help provide a sense of meaning to the family.  Right now, she was taken away from us, too soon and very quickly, and her death doesn’t count for anything.  Knowing the county and state will never count her passing as an official COVID-19 related death because the state refused to perform the confirming test is frustrating. We know what killed her. In the end we are all a statistic; she deserves to be counted in the right place.”