On May 18, the Freedom Foundation released a groundbreaking report, based on information obtained directly from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH), showing that the state’s official count of COVID-19 deaths was overstated by as much as 13 percent due to the state’s practice of counting every person who died sometime after testing positive for the virus, even if the death was caused by something else.
While state officials publicly denounced the report and defended their methods, they privately admitted the accuracy of the Freedom Foundation’s report, describing it as “true” and “correct” in emails to colleagues obtained under the state Public Records Act.
The emails also show that state officials intentionally avoided publicly acknowledging the Freedom Foundation’s reporting.
Taken together with the state’s largely unfulfilled promises to improve its methodology, the emails paint a picture of an administration more concerned with saving face than presenting accurate COVID-19 data to the public.
Consider the following timeline of events:
May 18, 2020: The Freedom Foundation reported that DOH was counting the deaths of all persons who previously tested positive for COVID-19 and that, at the time, 13 percent of such deaths had no reference to COVID-19 as a cause or contributing factor on their death certificate.
When asked about the report at a press conference that same day, Gov. Jay Inslee responded by stating he was “[confident] in the numbers that we’ve put forward”, accused the Freedom Foundation of “fanning these conspiracy claims from the planet Pluto” and not caring about the lives lost to the virus, and dismissed the report as “disappointing,” “unfortunate,” “dangerous” and “disgusting.”
May 19, 2020: Reporter Hanna Scott of Kiro radio emailed Amy Reynolds, the DOH communications director, and asked for her response to a radio interview of the Freedom Foundation report’s author on The Dori Monson Show the previous day.
Reynolds forwarded the email to others on the DOH communications team, including Lisa Stromme, Jamie Nixon and David Bayne. As director of the Center for Public Affairs, Bayne is a member of the DOH leadership team.
The email referenced “an event” Nixon was planning for Thursday, May 21 and asked whether “…you want to go out strong with a statement against the misinformation in this soundbite sooner.”
May 20, 2020: Nixon forwarded the radio interview and written report to Katie Hutchinson, DOH health statistics manager, and Cathy Wasserman, epidemiologist for non-infectious conditions, writing:
“In [the interview], he says that someone who has had a positive COVID test, and then maybe a month later died of a car accident, will be counted as a COVID related death. Please listen to the clip and let us know if what he is saying is correct.”
Hutchinson promptly replied, acknowledging that, “…yes, in theory, that is correct.”
Later in the morning, Nixon forwarded the email thread to Bayne, the state Joint Information Center (JIC) based at the Washington National Guard headquarters at Camp Murray near Tacoma, and the DOH communications team. Nixon’s email summarized the situation and sought to coordinate the state’s response:
“On Monday the Freedom Foundation published a piece where they explain how DOH counts COVID deaths. As a result of the conclusions reached in the piece, we have received several requests from various outlets looking for comment… [W]e decided it would be prudent to see if we could put a couple experts from the Center for Health Statistics on the Thursday tele-briefing to speak to the issue…
Attached is a clip from the Dori Monson radio program… wherein the author of the Freedom Foundation piece explains that someone who tested positive for COVID, and then perhaps a couple weeks later died in a car accident, would be counted as a COVID death under our system. This is true.” (emphasis added)
That afternoon, Nixon forwarded the email thread to Jaime Smith, Gov. Inslee’s former communications director and present director of the JIC, saying he thought it was “important” that she see it. Smith responded that the situation was an “[i]nteresting example (again) of how complex all this information can be.”
That evening, DOH public information officer Cory Portner sent Smith a draft email announcement of the telebriefing that would be conducted the following day. As prepared by Portner, the announcement specifically referenced the Freedom Foundation and made it quite clear the purpose of the telebriefing was to address the Freedom Foundation’s report.
However, Smith emailed back revisions that struck the reference to the Freedom Foundation, writing to Portner, “They don’t need the publicity.” Smith also deleted a statement originally included by Portner that DOH releases COVID-19 death data “in a transparent fashion.”
May 21, 2020: DOH held a telebriefing regarding its method for counting COVID-19 deaths. During the briefing, Hutchinson acknowledged that DOH does count the deaths of every person who tests positive for the virus, including cases in which the victim dies from obviously unrelated causes, including even gunshot wounds.
However, Hutchinson claimed during the call, without explanation, that only about 3 percent of the Department’s reported COVID-19 deaths were in doubt, not 13 percent, as it had previously told the Freedom Foundation (local press did not ask about the discrepancy). Still, she assured participants that, “Those numbers will be adjusted” to remove improperly counted deaths.
June 17, 2020: DOH announced it would “…change the way we report COVID-19 deaths in two phases.” Phase 1 involved “…seven deaths being removed from our current death count, including two suicides, three homicides, and two overdose deaths…” DOH described Phase 2 as follows:
“Expand how we report deaths to identify whether we can confirm or rule-out COVID-19 as a contributing cause of death, including identifying probable and suspected deaths. As part of Phase two, future COVID-19 death classifications will include whether:
1. COVID-19 contributed to the death (death certificate, testing, and other case information available to confirm);
2. COVID-19 probably contributed to the death (death certificate information available but testing information not available);
3. COVID-19 is suspected to have contributed to death (follow-up being conducted prior to ruling out or confirming death);
4. COVID-19 did not contribute to the death (examples include homicide, overdose, suicide, car accident, or disease with clear exclusion of COVID-19 illness).”
The Freedom Foundation applauded the announcement of these overdue changes.
July 14, 2020: DOH released a one-time “Death Category Report” breaking down the COVID-19 deaths reported by DOH into the “Phase 2” categories.
According to the report, “As of 14 July, 2020 there have been 1,458 deaths among Washington residents who have had a positive RT-PCR COVID-19 test.”
Of these, 65 (4 percent) “…died of unrelated causes. This includes homicides, suicides, overdoses, accidents (without mention of COVID), and natural deaths where COVID-19 has been ruled out as contributing to the death.”
Another 67 (5 percent) are “suspect” deaths from natural causes in which do not reflect COVID-19 on the death certificate.
And a further 25 (2 percent) deaths, at the time, were pending a death certificate.
All told, DOH reported that 89 percent of the deaths it had reported were “confirmed,” meaning the person involved both tested positive for the virus and had COVID-19 reflected on their death certificate.
This is only slightly different than the 87 percent confirmation rate originally reported by DOH to the Freedom Foundation in May and far more than the merely “3 percent variance” claimed by DOH in its telebriefing.
Since July 14, DOH has not produced an updated report showing the death count by category. Further, the official DOH dashboard continues to present only a single number for deaths. DOH confirmed to the Freedom Foundation that the only deaths no longer included in its dashboard number are the handful that definitely died from causes unrelated to COVID-19. The dashboard continues to include “suspect” and “pending” deaths that may or may not have involved the virus.
In other words, the number that DOH continues to promote and use regularly in its official materials, and which the press continues to report (because no other number is available), remains inflated despite promises from DOH that it would “Expand how we report deaths…”
As the Freedom Foundation has emphasized from the start, evaluating the state’s response to COVID-19 and making well-informed decisions requires accurate data. It is unfortunate that state officials developed a methodology in the first place that overstates the number of deaths from COVID-19. But their failure to correct this methodology, after assurances they would do so, is far more troubling.