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New report suggests there are thousands of unaccounted deaths in Arizona

Posted at 6:12 PM, Aug 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-25 00:40:00-04

PHOENIX — A new report by the Arizona Public Health Association suggests there are thousands of unaccounted deaths in Arizona.

The report looks at the mortality trends in 2020 over a 10-year period per 100,000 populations.

The report states, "Arizona has recorded more than 7,100 more deaths in the first seven months of 2020 when compared to 2019. According to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services data dashboard, about 4,100 of these deaths have been as a direct result of a SARS CoV2 infection. This suggests that an additional 3,000 deaths during this period may be indirectly attributable to the pandemic."

Will Humble, the executive director of AZPHA said it's obvious the vast majority of the unaccounted deaths are tied to the pandemic.

"Obviously the biggest impact has to do with people who died directly of COVID-19, the secondary effects are really from delayed care, people who didn't go into their primary care doctor or specialist because of the pandemic," said Humble.

There are new questions though on how deaths are counted in Arizona. ABC15 has learned that Maricopa County officials count people who die with the disease even if the disease was not the cause of the death.

"I want to reassure everyone that every single person who has COVID-19 listed anywhere on their death certificate is in fact counted," said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine with Maricopa County Public Health Department.

Sunenshine went on to explain during a press conference last week how COVID-19 deaths are counted.

"Even if it's not listed on their death certificate, anyone who has a COVID-19 positive test within a certain period of when they died, is also counted as a COVID-19 positive death," she said.

Maricopa County officials tell ABC15 that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 in 60 days and dies is counted as a COVID-19 death.

In an email, a spokesperson wrote that this is standard practice, "Someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19 by a PCR test and died within 60 days of their diagnosis would be considered a COVID-associated death. This is a standard practice in public health. Not counting these individuals would lead to an underestimate of the deaths related to COVID-19 and would not be consistent with public health standards. We follow state and federal standards to ensure that all state and local health departments are counting deaths the same. This way we can compare deaths related to a disease or condition across the US."

ABC15 asked Maricopa County health officials about a hypothetical question — if a person dies in a car crash, and tested positive for COVID-19 within the 60 days, would they be counted as a COVID-19 death?

The response: "Yes, the death would be added to the total because for Public Health, it is important to understand who died WITH the disease even if the disease was not the CAUSE of death. Obviously, fatal accidents are a small subset of the total."

This information is a completely different response than when Arizona's top public health director was asked the same question. In July, Dr. Cara Christ said a hypothetical question like this would not happen.

"So, if somebody is COVID-19 positive and is in a car accident that had nothing to do with a COVID, they are not going to be counted in the COVID numbers," said Dr. Christ in a phone interview with ABC15 in late July.

We reached out to Dr. Christ at ADHS for clarification on the contradicting statements, and a spokesperson sent a response that linked to an old blog of hers about how deaths are counted. You can see that here.

However, it is clear in Arizona there are thousands of unaccounted deaths — some could be from heat-related causes this year, but not enough for that number.

"If you back up a second and say okay then, let's concede there's different ways to count a death as it relates to COVID-19 or not, let's just look at all cause mortality for a second, and if you look at all cause mortality that doesn't lie those are people that died," said Humble.

Humble wrote in his blog about other causes, "Some have suggested that a substantial portion of the increase in all-cause mortality in June and July is attributable to heat-related deaths, unintentional poisonings with opioids or suicides. Our review revealed no evidence that this is the case."