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Did Arizona COVID-19 deaths start in February?

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Posted at 6:12 PM, May 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-08 22:47:36-04

As state officials backtrack to uncover uncounted COVID-19 deaths, federal mortality data shows a significant increase in overall deaths and there are strong indicators that Arizonans may have started dying from the virus back in February.

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ABC15 analyzed weekly mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control.

It shows compared to 2019, there has been a four percent increase in overall deaths in the state so far this year — a rise of about 750 total deaths.

Compared to a five-year average, the increase is 10 percent.

“That’s dramatic. That almost never happens,” said Dr. Sam Clark, a professor at Ohio State University, who studies epidemiology and mortality statistics. “I’m very confident that this excess in all-cause mortality is related to COVID-19 one way or another.”

Clark, who has commented on the issues of COVID-19 excess deaths with the New York Times and other outlets, said the current system was built to handle the pandemic.

“The problem here is our surveillance systems as we know are not set up to deal with COVID-19” Clark said. “We can’t test everybody. If we did, a lot of those deaths would end up in the COVID-19 category.”

The CDC began releasing data on COVID-19 deaths and probable deaths in late March.

But ABC15’s analysis of federal data shows several death categories that inexplicably rose and in one case spiked dramatically this year.

In one catch-all category there’s been a 171 percent increase in the first 16 weeks of 2020 compared to a five-year average.

The category: “Symptoms, signs, and abnormal clinical and laboratory findings, not elsewhere classified.”

Think of it like an “other” category of death classifications.

So far, through 16 weeks, there’s been 1,135 deaths classified in the category. The previous average for an entire year: 1,307.

“This is a category in which only 20 or 30 deaths are assigned each week,” said Garrett Archer, ABC15’s data analyst. “In the last several weeks, we’ve seen this explode.”

Starting in February, the cases in this category began to sharply rise, reaching a high-point of 113 deaths in the eleventh week this year.

Clark believes these likely indicate uncounted COVID-19 deaths.

“The timing I think is perfect,” he said.

Clark later added, “I predict that category is going to come back down to what it was in the past. And if you do testing, you’re going to get a new COVID-19 category that is going to suck up most of that.”

Newly-released federal data is following that trend.

As COVID-19 deaths started being classified by the CDC in late March, the other category identified by ABC15 began to fall.

In the most recent weeks available, the two lines have nearly met.

On Friday, the Arizona Department of Health Services announced the largest COVID-19 death toll in a one-day period.

The state added in dozens of previously uncounted deaths since April 12. Director Dr. Cara Christ wrote in a blog post that the increase is because of new death certificate surveillance now being used.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at