Emails obtained by the Freedom Foundation from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) indicate the state’s total count of COVID-19 deaths is overstated in more ways than one.
The issue came to light after, back in June, Malheur County announced its “first COVID-19 death,” a man in his 70s whose positive test for the virus came back postmortem. While certainly tragic, though, it wasn’t a COVID-19 death — at least not in the way most people would think of it.
That’s because the man apparently died from falling off a ladder.
The local uproar caused by calling this accident a “COVID-19 death” was enough to prompt Oregon Rep. Mark Owens (R-Crane), whose district includes Malheur County, to reach out to OHA officials for clarification.
The OHA’s response indicates the agency is overstating Oregon’s total number of COVID-19 deaths in two ways:
- Counting all deaths of individuals who have previously tested positive for COVID-19 as “COVID-19 deaths,” even in situations where the virus was not the actual cause of death.
- Counting deaths of “probable” cases, or cases in which the individual who died was suspected to have COVID-19 but did not have a positive test.
OHA’s Methodology for Counting COVID-19 Deaths
In a June 16 response to Owens’ inquiry, OHA Senior Policy Advisor Matthew Green stated that OHA’s methodology is to “record whether an illness is associated with a death, even if perhaps it is not the cause. Thus, the numbers we publish technically mean that there was a death of a person who had a COVID-19 infection.”
Green went on to explain that:
“Falling off a ladder or being in a car crash are fairly obvious cases where the infection might not be the cause of death. However, it gets more complicated if a person had, say, a heart ailment. Was the ailment or the infection the true cause? As I said, public health agencies leave that to the individual’s doctors and simply record it as a COVID-19-related death.”
Despite the matter-of-fact tone about what “public health agencies” do, however, not all states inflate their COVID-19 fatality statistics.
The Colorado Department of Health and Environment revised its methodology in May, lowering its COVID-19 death count at the time from 1,150 to 878.
More recently, the Freedom Foundation exposed a similar practice of overreporting COVID-19 deaths in Washington — the news of which ruffled the feathers of the state’s governor while simultaneously causing his own Department of Health to change the way it counts COVID-19 deaths.
OHA’s methodology is similar to what the Freedom Foundation uncovered in Washington. According to Green’s email, the current technical definition of a COVID-19 death in Oregon is:
“For community: death of a confirmed or probable COVID-19 case within 60 days of the earliest available date among exposure to a confirmed case, onset of symptoms, or date of specimen collection for the first positive test; or someone with a COVID-19-specific ICD-10 code listed as a primary or contributing cause of death on a death certificate
For hospitalized: death from any cause in a hospitalized person during admission or in the 60 days following discharge AND a COVID-19 positive laboratory diagnostic test at any time since 14 days prior to hospitalization.”
The definition suggests there are time limitations placed on what is considered a death “with COVID-19” (i.e., if enough time has passed since an individual had COVID-19, his or her death won’t necessarily be counted as a COVID-19 death).
But even if such time limitations are followed in practice, the case of the Malheur County man, who tested positive for COVID-19 after he died of an unrelated accident, shows that deaths unrelated to COVID-19 are still counted under OHA’s methodology.
Even within the definition’s parameters, the OHA’s methodology clearly has problems. Including the deaths of any individuals who have tested positive for the virus — and even some who haven’t — as “COVID-19 deaths” risks seriously inflating the state’s total number of fatalities from the virus. In Washington, for example, a similar methodology inflated the state’s total number of COVID-19 deaths by as much as 13 percent.
And Green’s email suggests there are other cases like the one in Malheur County.
The spread of COVID-19 is undoubtedly difficult to track. However, at a time of extreme worry and the imposition of heavy social and economic restrictions, the public should at least be provided with as much clarity as possible when it comes to the impact of COVID-19 in Oregon.
Removing accidents and other deaths clearly not caused by COVID-19 from the state’s COVID-19 webpage should be an easy fix.
Not doing so only serves to muddy the waters and erode public trust in Gov. Brown and the OHA’s response to the pandemic.
While the information obtained from the OHA confirms that COVID-19 deaths in Oregon are being overreported, the extent of the overreporting remains unclear. The Freedom Foundation reached out to OHA to confirm how many of the reported COVID-19 deaths in Oregon could be properly attributed to COVID-19 but received only unhelpful responses.
One inquiry was forwarded to the agency’s public records coordinator, who reclassified the questions as a “public records request” that she subsequently denied. Another received a response that didn’t provide any specifics, but confirmed the OHA’s practice of counting presumptive cases and any associated with a positive test as a COVID-19 death, even if the individual’s death certificate did not list the virus as the cause.
Finally, the Freedom Foundation’s inquiry to Mr. Green — who, interestingly enough, formerly worked for the Washington Department of Health and served as a city council member in the Freedom Foundation’s home city of Olympia — went unacknowledged.
It’s unfortunate, given that his old employer is now taking steps to remove deaths improperly attributed to COVID-19. One would hope he might convince OHA to follow suit.