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California County to Change How It Counts COVID-19 Deaths, Reducing Overcount

A nurse cares for a COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills neighborhood in Los Angeles, Calif., on July 30, 2021. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

California is poised to change the way it counts COVID-19 deaths based on a new algorithm that is being developed in conjunction with federal health authorities, according to a senior Los Angeles County official, who estimated that the current framework is overcounting COVID-19 fatalities by as much as 20 percent in the county.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACPH), told a recent press conference that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is “looking at making some revisions to how deaths are counted” and that the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) will review the guidance before potentially adopting it.

“If the state adopts a change in the definition, I will of course align with those changes,” Ferrer said.

Ferrer said that questions have been raised around the degree to which there’s a possible overcount when patients test positive for COVID-19 but die of another cause but are still being logged as fatalities due to the disease.

“I think that’s what they’ve been looking at the most,” she said. “I know that when we looked at our data we’re estimating that maybe 15-20 percent of the deaths that we’re counting right now … those designations might change if there is a reclassification.”

“But we won’t know until we see the exact language,” Ferrer continued, adding that the LACPH will “align fully” with any state-level changes.

Ferrer added, however, that the reclassification would only go back as far as Jan. 1, 2023, not earlier.

“It’s very hard to go back in time and apply this algorithm back in time because we didn’t have the same tools we have now,” she said, adding, “We might see a shift. Maybe it’s 10–20 percent. It’s going to be hard to tell until we see the new definition.”

It’s unclear when that new definition will be finalized, though Fox LA reporter Marla Tellez said in a Jan. 27 post on Twitter that CDPH sources have confirmed they’re implementing new state death guidance for COVID-19.

The Epoch Times has reached out to CDPH for comment but received no response by publication.

It comes as another state recently announced it’s changing the way it tallies COVID-19 deaths.

Colorado Changes How It Counts COVID-19 Deaths

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) said on Jan. 9 that it would update its data visualizations to align with The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists’ (CSTE) Revised COVID-19-associated Death Classification Guidance for classification of deaths among COVID-19 cases (pdf).

The CSTE guidance, which was updated at the end of November 2022, recommends that COVID-19 death tallies should be based on death certificate information without relying on the collection of additional information from case investigations.

“As such, death certificates should serve as the primary source for identifying and classifying mortality associated with COVID-19,” the guidance states. “This approach should be augmented by case investigation data, when available, and enhanced surveillance and special studies for COVID-19-associated mortality in sentinel sites with requisite resources.”

The CSTE’s revised guidance was conducted with input from the CDC.

‘From’ or ‘With’ COVID-19?

Meanwhile, a doctor who appeared prominently in the media during the pandemic acknowledged recently that the United States is overcounting COVID-19 deaths and stressed the need for “transparent reporting” on the real numbers.

Leana Wen, a former Planned Parenthood director who now works for CNN and the Washington Post, wrote in a recent op-ed that COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are being overcounted and “that’s a problem.”

Wen noted in the piece that current CDC data show that about 400 people are dying from the virus every day, before asking: “But are these Americans dying from COVID or with COVID?”

“Two infectious-disease experts I spoke with believe that the number of deaths attributed to COVID is far greater than the actual number of people dying from COVID,” she wrote.

“Robin Dretler, an attending physician at Emory Decatur Hospital and the former president of Georgia’s chapter of Infectious Diseases Society of America, estimates that at his hospital, 90 percent of patients diagnosed with COVID are actually in the hospital for some other illness.”

Some patients have several concurrent infections, not just COVID-19.

“People who have very low white blood cell counts from chemotherapy might be admitted because of bacterial pneumonia or foot gangrene,” Dretler was quoted as saying. “They may also have COVID, but COVID is not the main reason why they’re so sick.”

But if those patients die, the doctor said that COVID-19 may get added to their death certificates—meaning, they’re counted as a COVID-19 death. That’s despite COVID-19 not being the primary factor that caused the deaths.

In the conclusion to her op-ed, Wen wrote: “To be clear, if the covid death count turns out to be 30 percent of what’s currently reported, that’s still unacceptably high. But that knowledge could help people better gauge the risks of traveling, indoor dining and activities they have yet to resume.”

Following the publication of Wen’s op-ed, some conservatives and COVID-19 vaccine skeptics suggested she’s late arriving at the conclusion that COVID-19 deaths are being overcounted.

“A year ago, this was a conspiracy theory that would get you censored,” wrote prominent vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. on Twitter.

And California-based Epidemiologist Dr. Tracy Hoegn wrote Monday that it is “amazing how long it has taken the U.S. to accept this is a problem,” noting that Denmark in 2021 changed how they would distinguish those who died with COVID-19 and those who died from the virus.

“This is not just recently true. It’s been true for three years! We truly do not know how many actually died from COVID, which means that not even the [case fatality rate] is accurate,” Jeffrey Tucker, the head of the Brownstone Institute and a columnist for The Epoch Times, wrote on Twitter.

The Epoch Times first reported on how COVID deaths are counted in April 2020, and in September 2020 on how CDC data showed 94 percent of reported COVID deaths had contributing health conditions.

Jack Phillips contributed to this report.