Washington state is adjusting how it counts COVID-19 deaths

By Ryan Blethen

The Seattle Times

The state Department of Health (DOH) is refining how it records deaths as it works to better track the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, anytime someone with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis dies, DOH has been attributing those deaths to the virus, said Katie Hutchinson, health statistics manager for DOH.

In the vast majority of those cases, COVID-19 was the cause of the person’s death. But sometimes, people with COVID-19 happen to die of something else. Or, they have incomplete death certificates and the state isn’t immediately sure whether COVID-19 played a role.

To differentiate among these, DOH on Monday began classifying deaths of people with COVID-19 into four categories: Confirmed, pending, suspect and non-COVID-19-related.

“We have slowly been working on our process to get this more detailed and provide more information,” Hutchinson said during a press conference Tuesday.

DOH has removed deaths from the official tally when it determined COVID-19 was not the primary cause. Hutchinson said the agency plans to continue doing so.

On two days so far, DOH has removed more deaths from its totals than it added. As of June 16, Washington officially had five fewer total deaths than the previous day; as of July 12, it was 39 fewer.

On Tuesday, Hutchinson explained the new death categories:

* A death is considered “confirmed” when the person has tested positive for COVID-19 and their death certificate states that the disease was the cause of death or a contributing factor. This group makes up 89% of COVID-19 deaths reported in the state as of 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

* A death is considered “pending” when the person’s death certificate doesn’t list a cause of death or has yet to be completed. This category can include Washingtonians who died out of state. About 2% of Washington’s deaths are considered pending.

* “Suspect” deaths, which currently account for 5% of the state’s official death tally, describe COVID-positive people who died of natural causes and whose death certificate doesn’t mention the virus. When this happens, DOH has to investigate and determine whether COVID-19 played a role in the person’s death.

* Non-COVID-19 deaths are those where a COVID-positive person definitely died of something unrelated to the virus — for instance, suicides, overdoses, homicides or accidents. These were 4% of the deaths recorded by the state as of 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

DOH did not immediately respond to requests for an explanation of when it began removing deaths from the state’s official tally or how frequently it has done so up to this point.

On Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after Hutchinson addressed the press, DOH updated the state’s totals: As of 11:59 p.m. Monday, Washington had 42,304 coronavirus infections and 1,404 deaths.