Officials Scramble to Explain Pennsylvania’s Fluctuating Coronavirus Death Count

LOS ANGELES (April 1, 2020) Ensign Patrick Coyle, from Tampa, Fla., writes down patient information aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) April 1. Mercy deployed in support of the nation's COVID-19 response efforts, and will serve as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals. …
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Pennsylvania health officials are backtracking after a week of inconsistent numbers on the state’s coronavirus death count, which saw two spikes and a significant decrease on Thursday, citing “technical issues,” lags in reporting, and the inclusion of “probable deaths.”

The death count in the Keystone State spiked twice in the last week and saw a stunning decrease on Thursday. The staggering fluctuations spell trouble for officials, who are effectively basing policy decisions on reopening the state on a decline in numbers.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the inconsistencies began on Sunday after the Health Department raised the death total by 276 overnight, bringing the total to 1,112. The death total saw another significant jump on Tuesday, going from 1,204 to 1,564 in a single day, giving the false impression of a surge in recent deaths.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine clarified this week that the spikes were not reflective of current information, attributing the bumps to a computer glitch, a general lag in initial reporting (counting deaths that occurred weeks ago, in some cases), and the addition of “probable positive” deaths.

Via the Inquirer:

On Tuesday, Levine reported 300 probable deaths in the day’s count but appeared to indicate the situation was new.

“We will now be reporting probable deaths related to COVID-19 in addition to confirmed deaths,” she said.

That same day, department spokesperson Nate Wardle told Spotlight PA some probable deaths had been included in the count for at least a week or maybe longer.

Then, on Wednesday, Wardle backtracked, saying that although probable deaths had been added to the reporting systems as of April 13, the day before federal guidance changed, they weren’t included in the state’s official count until Tuesday.

Wardle added that despite Levine’s public comments, none of the deaths reported Sunday were considered probable, meaning the first surge was due almost entirely to lags in reporting.

What is more, the department removed 200 “probable” coronavirus deaths from the state’s total death count on Thursday, drawing more questions and causing further confusion, particularly as the death counts from the department and coroners remain inconsistent:

“There’s a discrepancy in the numbers,” Charles E. Kiessling Jr., president of the Pennsylvania Coroners Association and coroner in Lycoming County, said Thursday. “I’m not saying there’s something going on…. I’m not a conspiracy theory guy. But accuracy is important.”

The issue has continued to cause frustration among coroners across the state, who say the department has left them out of the picture in helping to determine the tricky cases of “probable” deaths. Nonetheless, the department is “insisting the majority of deaths caused by the virus do not need to be reported to a coroner”:

If the dispute had been resolved a month ago, with coroners included in the department’s COVID-19 investigations, Kiessling said, the public trust in the state’s numbers would be stronger.

“I know who died. They know who died,” he said. “We have accurate numbers. We don’t scare everyone to death.”

Jeffrey Conner, the coroner in Franklin County, said he was blindsided by the department’s news on Tuesday that 10 people had died of COVID-19 in the county. As of Wednesday afternoon, he said, he was aware of only one death.

“Coroners are frustrated,” Conner said. “There is a lack of leadership from the Department of Health and a lack of definitive answers.”

Meanwhile, Levine said the department does not anticipate any other spikes, referring to this week’s surges as “two epidemiological reconciliations that we had to do.”

“First, to bring together our different data sources, and then to have the determination and be at the place where we could add the probable deaths,” Levine said.

“Those are the only changes that we’ll be making,” Levine continued, adding that the department is working to collaborate with coroners and hospitals to “work out those details” regarding the continued discrepancies.


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