Are COVID-19 Deaths Being Overreported?

According to some tracking sites, the U.S. death toll from the novel coronavirus reached 10,000 victims on Monday. Grim reapers on social media noted the “grim milestone” and forecast more grim days ahead for Americans now trapped by government-imposed house arrest as they helplessly watch their savings and livelihoods and freedom implode in real-time.

The U.S. surgeon general warned that this week’s catastrophic death toll will rival those not seen since the most horrific attacks on American soil. Jerome Adams said that the next several days will be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment. Only, it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country.” President Trump and his closest medical advisors also have reiterated that terrifying scenario.

But there is little information available as to what qualifies as a coronavirus fatality for official counts. And there is good reason to approach such tallies with skepticism since reporting from states like New York is suspiciously vague.

If Americans are to believe that COVID-19 poses a mortal risk to the general population and therefore requires the most intrusive measures ever invoked to stop the spread of the deadly virus, then government officials must clarify the classification. Health officials have confirmed that older people and those with underlying medical issues such as heart disease or diabetes are most at-risk; the concern, however, is that fatalities in such cases are always attributed to coronavirus as the main cause of death instead of just noting it as a contributing factor.

Questionable Guidance

Guidelines recently released by the Centers for Disease Control bolster concerns that the death toll is being rigged to show a higher fatality rate.

“In cases where a definite diagnosis of COVID–19 cannot be made, but it is suspected or likely (e.g., the circumstances are compelling within a reasonable degree of certainty), it is acceptable to report COVID–19 on a death certificate as ‘probable’ or ‘presumed’,” the agency advises. “In these instances, certifiers should use their best clinical judgment in determining if a COVID–19 infection was likely.”

That clinical judgment, alarmingly, does not require administering a test to confirm the presence of the virus.

“Ideally, testing for COVID–19 should be conducted, but it is acceptable to report COVID–19 on a death certificate without this confirmation if the circumstances are compelling within a reasonable degree of certainty,” the guidelines state.

The CDC provided three examples to help officials determine how to properly document the cause of death. One scenario described an 86-year-old female nonambulatory stroke victim who developed a fever and cough days after being exposed to a sick family member later diagnosed with COVID-19. Even though the decedent wasn’t tested, the coroner nonetheless determined that the woman’s underlying cause of death was COVID–19, “given the patient’s symptoms and exposure to an infected individual.”

Let’s just say that kind of bureaucratic guesswork is unacceptable while the economy is in chaos, tens of millions are suddenly out of work, and power-hungry government tyrants arrest surfers and pastors for daring to violate “social distancing” decrees handed down to their local authorities by Beltway lifers.

But even with such leeway, the death toll tallied by the CDC isn’t close to the number of COVID-19 fatalities reported by sites such as the New York Times or Worldometers.

As of April 4, the CDC confirmed 1,889 deaths due to COVID-19; 1,073 fatalities have occurred in New York City alone. The provisional count, the agency explained, could lag other tracking sites because of a delay between “the time the death occurred and when the death certificate is completed, submitted to [CDC] and processed for reporting purposes. This delay can range from 1 week to 8 weeks or more.”

A separate post at the CDC claims 8,910 people have died from COVID-19 but doesn’t properly explain the discrepancy, except to say that “data reported by states should be considered the most up to date.”

Fudging the Numbers in New York?

Data from New York City, the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak, does little to assure Americans that the death count is legitimate. The city’s health department only started recording fatalities on March 22; it claimed 63 residents succumbed to the disease on that day. By April 6, that figure climbed to a total of 2,475 deaths. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has held daily press briefings to announce the day’s death toll to a fawning national press corps.

Despite Cuomo’s confidence in his information, there’s plenty of uncertainty in New York City’s reporting. “All data in this report are preliminary and subject to change as cases continue to be investigated,” reads the document’s disclaimer at the top.

What, precisely, does that mean? Does it mean that health officials instantly presume that anyone who exhibited COVID-like symptoms died of the disease without a test to verify the cause? Who and what will be “investigated?” And how could the city accurately report daily fatalities if the federal government needs weeks to confirm a COVID-19 death?

New York City’s death count does, however, reveal some useful information: Of the 2,475 deaths attributed to COVID-19, only 46 of the victims had no underlying conditions. In states with higher mortality rates such as New Jersey and Louisiana, most of the decedents had at least one other serious health issue.

More Missing Data

There’s another missing datapoint about fatalities: Whether the victim was a U.S. citizen or someone here from another country, particularly from an infected region. New York City calculates the deaths of “foreign residents” but does not separately categorize those victims.

If a plurality of the decedents traveled here from China or Italy, it would give researchers more insight as to the transmission of the virus and how to better prevent a future outbreak. For example, as I wrote last week, an area of Queens with a high concentration of Asian residents has been the country’s hotspot of coronavirus activity. Yet there is no generic data available about “foreign residents” who contracted or succumbed to the disease.

As is the case with this fast-moving crisis, there is a lot more in the category of what we don’t know than what we do know. Playing loose with the number of fatalities or giving local officials the green light to inflate those figures is inimical to the public’s need to get a firm grasp on the danger of the disease. It makes for frightening headlines and serves as potent political ammunition against the White House but gets us no closer to the truth.

About Julie Kelly

Julie Kelly is a political commentator and senior contributor to American Greatness. She is the author of Disloyal Opposition: How the NeverTrump Right Tried―And Failed―To Take Down the President Her past work can be found at The Federalist and National Review. She also has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, and Genetic Literacy Project. After college graduation, she served as a policy and communications consultant for several Republican candidates and elected officials in suburban Chicago. She also volunteered for her local GOP organization. After staying home for more than 10 years to raise her two daughters, Julie began teaching cooking classes out of her home. She then started writing about food policy, agriculture, and biotechnology, as well as climate change and other scientific issues. She graduated from Eastern Illinois University in 1990 with a degree in communications and minor degrees in political science and journalism. Julie lives in suburban Chicago with her husband, two daughters, and (unfortunately) three dogs.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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