Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has dismissed those accusing the state of overreporting its novel coronavirus deaths, but it would be tough to shrug off the case of Helen Sertz.
Sertz died June 4 after a fall at her home in Federal Way, Washington, yet the state Department of Health listed her as a COVID-19 fatality, even though her death certificate made no mention of the virus.
“My mother is listed as a COVID-19 victim. She did not die of COVID-19. She died from a fall,” Christine Frye said in a Jan. 11 video for the Freedom Foundation.
She said her mother had previously contracted COVID-19, but she fought it off and then tested negative for the virus — a remarkable recovery for a woman approaching her 100th birthday.
“She was incredibly proud [that] a woman of 99 years, almost 100 years old, having survived COVID,” said Mrs. Frye, who learned of her mother’s listing as a COVID-19 death from television news. “She would have been incredibly probably furious and disappointed that she’s counted as a COVID death instead of a survivor of Covid.”
Coronavirus death tallies remain a contentious issue as states defend and refine their procedures, but perhaps nowhere has the scrutiny been greater than in Washington, thanks to the Olympia-based foundation’s dogged pursuit.
State health officials removed in June seven deaths — including homicides and suicides — from their COVID-19 dashboard and promised to adjust their reporting procedures shortly after a foundation report found that death certificates for 13% of COVID-19-listed fatalities made no mention of the virus.
The department even apologized for the error, although Mr. Inslee has been less conciliatory, blasting at a May press conference what he described as “conspiracy claims from the planet Pluto” when asked about the foundation’s findings.
Last month, state officials removed another 214 out of about 3,500 deaths shortly before the free-market group released a follow-up report accusing the department of failing to implement changes, flagging 170 fatalities out of the nearly 2,000 on the state dashboard as of September for which the death certificates said nothing about the virus.
Another 171 of the listed deaths cited COVID-19 as a “condition” — meaning that the person had tested positive at some point — even though the underlying causes of death included “methamphetamine abuse,” “blunt force injury of the head and neck” and bladder cancer.
Foundation national director Aaron Withe unloaded on the Democratic governor, charging him with “a nakedly political act intended to scare the public into letting him continue to abuse the almost unlimited ‘emergency powers,’” referring to the state’s tight pandemic restrictions.
“This isn’t an innocent accounting error we’re talking about,” Mr. Withe said in a Dec. 16 statement. “This is a state agency under the authority of Gov. Jay Inslee that continues to misrepresent the number of people who have died of COVID even after it was already caught doing the same thing.”
Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk shot back by accusing the foundation of waging a “propaganda campaign,” saying that “the process is far more nuanced than what radical disinformation groups like the Freedom Foundation want people to believe.”
“This is part of the Freedom Foundation’s ongoing efforts to cynically devalue the lives of COVID patients by trying to disappear or diminish their numbers,” Mr. Faulk said in an email.
If anything, he said, “it is entirely likely that there are many more COVID deaths that we will never know about,” given the difficulties associated with “trying to collect vast amounts of data across health systems while responding to a pandemic the likes of which has not been seen in modern history.”
Maxford Nelsen, foundation director of labor policy, said that DOH officials “have never contradicted our research, because it’s based entirely on their data.”
“It’s unfortunate, but sadly not surprising, that the governor’s office has resorted to name-calling and venomous personal attacks when confronted with the facts,” said Mr. Nelsen, who conducted the research.
Under the latest changes, the department said it “will no longer assume a death is caused by COVID-19 if a positive lab result is reported more than 28 days prior to death. Until now, we correlated a positive COVID-19 lab result up to 60 days prior to death.”
The state will also wait to report deaths until after they are fully registered in the Washington Health and Life Event System. About 150 of the 214 deaths removed from the COVID-19 dashboard fell into that category, and have since been added back, said DOH spokesperson Teresa McCallion.
“Deaths due to factors other than COVID-19 can be hard to definitively rule out,” said Ms. McCallion in an email. “These are the deaths we review, along with local health jurisdictions, to assess COVID-19’s impact on a person’s death. While this creates a longer delay in reporting deaths, we believe that it ultimately produces a more accurate picture.”
She said she could not comment on the Sertz case, citing restrictions on revealing “protected health information for an individual.”
‘Very independent 99-year-old’
The foundation’s most recent report cited a “99-year-old female who died after losing her balance and falling while trying to retrieve an item from the top of her dresser,” which is how Mrs. Frye discovered that her mother had been logged as a COVID-19 death.
After Fox host Laura Ingraham referred to the example on the air, “we received a call from a woman who suspected that the 99-year-old woman she was featured on the Fox News report was actually her mother,” said Mr. Nelsen.
“We double-checked the information to make sure that it was, and it turned out it was absolutely her mother,” he said. “She explained what exactly did cause her mother’s death. She did test positive for Covid in the months before she died, but only ever had minor symptoms and only for a couple of days, and then repeatedly tested negative thereafter.”
He said Mrs. Sertz “was back to living her normal life as a very independent 99-year-old who looked forward to continuing to interact with her friends and be active, until she suffered those injuries in the fall.”
The Centers for Disease Control guidance advises that death certificates mention COVID-19 as an underlying cause of death if the virus “played a role in the death” and led to “various life-threatening conditions, such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.”
State procedures differ. Colorado has separate tallies for those who died with versus died from COVID-19, while Oregon lists anyone who died within 60 days of an exposure or positive test, or where the virus is listed as a “primary or contributing cause of death on a death certificate.”
As for Washington state, Mr. Nelsen said the aggressive reporting may be a case of state officials “simply wanting to flag any death that may potentially have anything to do with Covid for further study later.”
“I would have some sympathy from that approach from a public-health standpoint if they just wanted to make sure they weren’t missing any data that might be relevant,” Mr. Nelsen said. “But that would not explain why the governor and public-health officials repeatedly claimed this is the number of people that died of Covid when that’s obviously not correct.”
The state COVID-19 dashboard as of Wednesday listed 291,989 confirmed and “probable” cases; 16,642 hospitalizations, and 3,940 deaths, for a death percentage of 1.3%. Washington has a population of 7.6 million.