Days after dismissing claims that the number of Washington COVID-19 deaths were being exaggerated by up to 13 percent as “conspiracy claims from the planet Pluto,” Gov. Jay Inslee sent officials from his Department of Health out for a hastily arranged videoconference on Thursday to admit it was true.
In fact, the numbers were padded by multiple Washingtonians who died of gunshot wounds.
The event became politically necessary when reporters blindsided Inslee during his regular weekly COVID-19 press briefing on Monday with questions about a report issued earlier in the day by the Freedom Foundation. In it, the organization revealed that DOH has a policy of padding the official number of COVID deaths in Washington by including victims who at one time had tested positive for the virus but subsequently died of some other cause.
“We already knew the overwhelming percentage of people who contract COVID-19 recover fully,” said Max Nelsen, labor policy director for the Freedom Foundation, who conducted the investigation. “But as we discovered when we examined the state’s methodology, it turns out they’re knowingly including people who died from other causes in the COVID-19 fatality numbers.”
The data regarding COVID-19 cases and deaths presented on the Washington State Department of Health’s (DOH) website is drawn from several different state databases and reporting systems.
When someone tests positive for COVID-19, the case is reported by public health staff to the Washington Disease Reporting System (WDRS) operated by DOH.
Deaths, however, are more complicated. DOH regulations require all deaths in Washington state be reported electronically via the Electronic Death Registration System (EDRS). This is the system used by funeral homes, coroners/medical examiners, hospitals and others responsible for completing death certificates.
Completing each “cause of death worksheet” involves listing the “immediate cause” of death, the “underlying cause(s)” that initiated the events culminating with the immediate cause of death, and “(o)ther significant conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause.” These fields are completed based on the “best medical opinion” of the certifier.
While deaths are reported through the EDRS, the data are ultimately transferred into a DOH database, the Washington Health and Life Events System (WHALES).
To determine the number of COVID-19 deaths, DOH uses name and birthdate to match deaths reported through the EDRS and registered in WHALES to positive COVID-19 cases reported to WDRS. As DOH described it to the Freedom Foundation via email, “Any individual who has a positive COVID-19 test and subsequently dies is counted on the (DOH) dashboards.” (emphasis added)
Obviously, not every person who tests positive for COVID-19 and subsequently passes away dies because of COVID-19.
At the time it responded to the Freedom Foundation’s questions on May 8, DOH dashboards reported 828 total COVID-19 deaths. Of these:
- 681 (82 percent) “list some variation of ‘COVID-19’ in one of the causes of death” on the death certificate;
- 41 (5 percent) of the death certificates do not list COVID-19 as a cause of death, but indicate it was a “significant condition contributing to death.”
- 106 (13 percent) deaths involved persons who had previously tested positive for COVID-19 but did not have the virus listed anywhere on their death certificate as either causing or contributing to death.
Days earlier, health officials in Colorado were shown by media in that state to have over-reported its COVID-19 deaths by using the same scheme.
When told during Monday’s press conference Washington’s official numbers showed a similar disparity, Inslee at first denied knowledge of the problem, then attempted to downplay its significance by mischaracterizing the Freedom Foundation’s position.
“I guess they’re saying … we should not act responsibly if there’s only 887 people dead instead of 1,000,” Inslee sputtered.
“What we’re saying,” Nelsen corrected, “is that the state needs to be more transparent about how it calculates COVID-19 deaths so that the public can make decisions based on the best available data and be in a better position to evaluate the state’s response to the virus.”
“This is why Jay Inslee has no credibility on this issue,” said Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe. “He knows he was lying now, and he knew it on Monday when he dismissed out of hand the research that was 100 percent validated today.
“He owes the Freedom Foundation an apology for slandering our good work,” he said. “And he owes the people of Washington an apology for perpetrating this fraud in their name.”