Grand County coroner says state is inflating COVID-19 death count

This chart tracks the daily deaths of people who had COVID-19 when they died statewide since the beginning of the pandemic. The Grand County Coroner does not believe the state should include deaths determined to be accidental or homicides with this reporting.
Courtesy CDPHE

With the backing of county commissioners, the Grand County coroner wants to fight the way COVID-19 deaths are reported statewide.

Coroner Brenda Bock updated commissioners on Tuesday about her efforts to remove a murder-suicide from the state’s COVID-19 death count, which seems unlikely given officials’ response.

It’s grated on Bock that a Fraser couple’s death at the end of November has been included with the state’s COVID-19 death reporting, even though investigators determined the incident was a murder-suicide. The Fraser couple had tested positive for COVID-19 in the month before they died.

Despite her efforts, Bock told commissioners, the state ultimately decided not to change the way COVID-19 deaths are reported, “to stay consistent with their reporting.” This means that the state’s number of COVID deaths — totaling more than 5,000 in February — will continue to include accidental deaths and homicides if a person tests positive for the disease soon before or after they died.

“I honestly don’t believe you have to falsify the numbers to get your point across to the public, and yet I really feel like that’s what the CDC is still doing,” Bock told commissioners, referring to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s death reporting guidelines that Colorado and most other states follow.

A spokesperson with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed that the two deaths are included with the state’s count of deaths among cases. The state currently reports five COVID-19 deaths in Grand County, while the coroner argues only two deaths have actually been caused by the coronavirus.

Bock found the June death of one man who later tested positive for the virus to be from natural causes, due to a sudden cardiac death and not related to the coronavirus. The couple’s official cause of death was blunt force trauma due to gunshot wounds.

“Even when (the state is) supposed to take information off of death certificates, they don’t,” Bock said over the phone Wednesday. “Nowhere on the death certificate does it say COVID.”

According to Bock, the two shooting deaths will count as deaths due to COVID for Grand in the state’s reporting because both decedents tested positive for COVID-19.

The CDPHE spokesperson disagreed with Bock’s assessment. The spokesperson, who asked to be identified as such, maintained the two gunshot deaths are included in deaths among cases but have not been tallied as deaths caused by the virus.

The spokesperson added that deaths found to be caused by COVID are pulled directly from death certificates, which are filled out by coroners and medical examiners.

Colorado has seen 5,677 deaths among cases and 5,431 deaths due to COVID-19, according to the most recent reporting. But Bock said over the phone Wednesday that she believes “a good portion” of those deaths due to COVID is also being inflated.

The state’s data on deaths due to COVID is coded by the CDC and directly corresponds with data on the National Center for Health Statistics website, the CDPHE spokesperson said. She added that the numbers of deaths among cases not related to COVID-19 are not expected to be substantial.

Even so, the state continues to list five total COVID-19 deaths in Grand County, regardless of whether the death was with or because of the virus.

The coroner made it clear to commissioners Tuesday that she is not pleased with the decision to keep the two deaths in the state’s count. She argued this guideline inflates numbers not just locally but nationally.

“The state said, ‘We’re going to keep doing it consistently,'” Bock told commissioners. “Well, you’re doing it consistently wrong and that doesn’t make it right.”

All three county commissioners expressed full support for Bock and offered assistance with sending a letter to state and federal elected officials to push for changes in how COVID-19 deaths are reported.

“It really is a virus — we all know that — but it does make you question if it truly is as deadly and as bad as they say when things like this are counted,” Commissioner Kris Manguso said Tuesday.

Commissioners Rich Cimino and Merrit Linke concurred, with all three in favor of moving forward with a letter.

“It seems to me, if we’re going to conquer this pandemic that we need accurate information,” Linke said, emphasizing that Bock proved that current numbers are not always accurately reported.

The commissioners were also interested in seeing if any other counties would add their voices to the letter. Because of Grand County’s small population, Cimino expressed concern that the county would be dismissed as an outlier.

Bock told the board that she felt confident that a number of medical examiners and county coroners would back the letter, especially for areas with smaller populations, where the discrepancies can be more easily noticed.

Bock agreed to draft a letter that the county commissioners would fine-tune before sending out to officials, including the governor and state senators.

Even with the possibility of inflated numbers, the data still shows that the pandemic is a serious concern. Deaths across Colorado increased dramatically last year due to COVID-19.

According to reporting from the Colorado Sun, the number of deaths across the state spiked by 18% from 2019 to 2020. The Sun found that previously, from 2010 to 2019, the state averaged just a 2.5% increase in deaths every year.

That spike was attributed to COVID-19, which ranked as the third-leading cause of death in Colorado last year.

The state’s reporting was preliminary, and numbers are expected to increase as causes of deaths from November and December are finalized. Those preliminary numbers for deaths caused by COVID-19 in 2020 totaled 3,520 and only included cases where COVID-19 was listed on the individual’s death certificate.

The state does not yet know how many COVID-19 deaths were accidental deaths or homicides, according to the CDPHE spokesperson. Such analyses are expected to be complete once all of the 2020 death certificate data are available and all cases are matched to death certificates.

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