Santa Clara County and Alameda County both overcounted deaths from COVID-19 by more than 20 percent, counting people who died from anything (say, a car crash) while they happened to have the virus, according to updates from both counties' health departments.
Using a metric set up during the hectic and fearful earlier days of the pandemic, the counties counted all deaths of people who tested positive for the virus as COVID-19 deaths. Now, with the immediate emergency letting up, they've adopted a new counting method that conforms more closely to what the general public might expect – essentially that COVID had to be at least a contributing factor to the death, or perhaps that it couldn't be ruled out.
"Using the older definition of COVID-19 deaths, a resident who had COVID-19 but died due to another cause, like a car accident, this person would be included in the total number of reported COVID-19 deaths for Alameda County," the Alameda County Public Health Department explained in a statement. "Under the updated definition of COVID-19 deaths, this person would not be included in the total because COVID-19 was not a contributing factor in the death."
Under its new definition, Alameda County is now including in its count deaths that were a direct result of COVID-19 or in which COVID-19 was a contributing cause of death, plus deaths in which COVID-19 couldn't be ruled out. The Santa Clara County Public Health Department said it is now only including deaths in which COVID-19 is listed as part of the cause of death on the death certificate.
This change led to a whopping 25 percent drop in the number of COVID-19 deaths reported in Alameda County, from 1,634 to 1,223 at the time of readjustment, and a 22 percent drop in Santa Clara County.
The revised numbers still show that medical personnel believe the virus contributed to the deaths of 1,267 in Alameda County and 1,698 people in Santa Clara County as of Friday, July 9. Even after the update, COVID-19 remains the third leading cause of death for Santa Clara County residents in 2020, the county said.
"[O]ur hearts go out to all families and loved ones of those we have lost during the pandemic, regardless of whether their deaths were ultimately attributed to COVID-19,” said Dr. Sarah Rudman, Assistant Public Health Officer for the County of Santa Clara.
Accurate case and death counts matter to those trying to assess the impacts of the pandemic and the success of containment measures, as well as struggling to make judgments weighing human suffering from the virus against human suffering linked to containment efforts. They're also significant to researchers attempting to calculate the risk the virus poses to individuals.
At first, accurate data was almost impossible to come by; as the pandemic has worn on, more and more reliable data has become available, but this latest correction to the death counts is a reminder that information is still evolving, and likely will be for some time.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have focused on bringing the best information to the public as soon as we have it,” Santa Clara's Rudman said. “As we see more vaccinations and fewer cases and deaths, we have had the opportunity to more deeply analyze the deaths that came in during the height of the pandemic."