Yesterday, John Hopkins University reported a grisly milestone in the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic: 6 million people have died as a result of the virus.
Part of the COVID-19 skeptic playbook has been questioning the accuracy of these numbers asking whether these deaths were people that died with COVID-19, or of COVID-19.
Locally, Mendocino County Public Health is reporting that 124 of our residents have lost their lives to the virus. Taking a look at the State of California’s information about Mendocino County, only 116 deaths are attributed to the county.
Why would Mendocino County currently claim that 124 residents have died of COVID-19 versus the state currently reporting 116? Cameron Brown, a representative of Mendocino County’s COVID-19 Media Relations team, told us the discrepancy lies in the county’s decision to include “probable” COVID-19 deaths in its count, while the state does not.
Mendocino County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren explained the State of California reports on PCR-confirmed cases only. The local COVID-19 death data has been gathered since the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Coren said, and there were circumstances where testing was not available, but the clinical picture of a patient “was overwhelming” that they passed as a result of the virus.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has gone on, Dr. Coren said public health entities have been able to identify criteria that guide them when determining the virus’s role in a fatality. This evolution of criteria, Dr. Coren said, is based on testing technology. Some deaths are characterized as “presumed” to have passed from the virus, though the decedent did not receive a PCR test but an antigen test. This discrepancy will be reflected in the future iteration of the COVID-19 dashboard, which, Dr. Coren said, will be released this month.
Dr. Coren described another significant data discrepancy in the summer of 2020 between the county and the state that led to each entity honing its practices. The issue was determined to lie in the state’s various data platforms accurately “reporting with each other,” Dr. Coren recalled. Mendocino County Public Health was “watching the data closely” and communicated the deviations providing the state an opportunity to shore up its practices.
When asked if these sorts of data discrepancies could play a role in skepticism regarding public health, Dr. Coren said, “I don’t think anytime in my 40 years of clinical practice has data been so scrupulously looked at in real-time by the public.” He went on to emphasize that data discrepancies and divergent perspectives are a standard aspect of the scientific process.
Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Coren said California’s public health entities “generally have been collecting data according to strict prescriptions” provided by the state. The State of California would then amass each county’s data because “it has a better capacity to analyze.”
Each local public health jurisdiction was tasked with communicating that information to their constituents. This resulted in every California county developing its own COVID-19 dashboard. Federal and state entities are now providing local health jurisdictions with recommended protocols to follow when communicating with the public, Dr. Coren said.
An example of those shifting practices is the step of no longer making public any details regarding COVID-19 deaths such as age and sex.
Over the last year, Mendocino County Public Health has informed the community of the most recent COVID-19 deaths providing details such as age, gender, and location. Though still anonymous, this information gave county residents insight into the ages most vulnerable to COVID-19 fatalities and the areas of the county most affected.
Cameron Brown of Mendocino County’s COVID-19 Media Relations team explained Mendocino County Public Health is working to align with the California Department of Public Health’s new practice of not reporting on individual deaths, but, instead, providing information for overall community deaths.
As the world is learning to navigate the perils of COVID-19, the best practices for managing the virus are only now being determined. Dr. Coren encouraged the public to consider the evolving nature of scientific knowledge.
“Nothing is perfect, as we go through this”, Dr. Coren said. “The scientists who develop these methodologies are working hard.”