“There are definitely people who died from reasons that were clearly not caused by COVID,” declared Alameda County Public Health Department spokeswoman Neetu Balram.
At issue was the definition the county was using to count COVID-19 deaths, requiring only that a patient tested positive for the virus at the time of their passing, even if they did not die as a direct result of the virus. In one such case, a person who tested positive for COVID-19 and died in a car crash was recorded as a COVID-19 death.
The revised count now shows the county has recorded 1,223 COVID-19 deaths, down from 1,634. The 411 cases removed from the list is a 25% reduction in overall virus deaths for the county.
The county revealed it decided to make the revision after a careful reading of state guidelines, with officials saying the new count will more accurately reflect the effect the disease has had on the county.
“Obviously, our definition was broader than the state’s,” Balram stated.
While some adjustments to real-time data are to be expected, Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the 25% revision “seems high.” Adalja said he has never seen that large of an adjustment to the death count from an infectious disease before.
But county officials also insisted that the revised number does not affect how they chose the measures they put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“We knew any change like this would have raised some eyebrows,” said Alameda County’s Health Officer Nicholas Moss. “Nothing about this changes our policy decisions now or during the height of the pandemic.”
The county’s original method was to attribute a death to COVID-19 if the coroner or medical provider (like a hospital) listed someone as being positive for the coronavirus at the time of their death.
Balram said the state’s definition was different: A death can only be attributed to COVID-19 if the coroner or medical provider can show that the person died “as a direct result of COVID-19, with COVID-19 as a contributing cause of death, or in whom death caused by COVID-19 could not be ruled out.” The state came up with this definition late last year in the middle of the pandemic, after Alameda County was already using its method.
“Obviously our definition was broader than the state’s,” Balram said, adding the 411 deaths being removed were “clearly not COVID.”
In announcing the changes to the data, the county used the example of a resident who tested positive for COVID-19 but died in a car accident. Under the original definition, that person’s death would have been included in the total number of COVID-19 deaths. Balram said she couldn’t say if that actual scenario played out in Alameda County.