Bay Area county makes startling revision to COVID-19 death toll: 25% of fatalities not caused by virus

Golden Gate Media

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A Bay Area public health agency has made a stunning revision: 25% of its COVID-19 fatalities were not virus-related.Golden Gate Media

Public health officials in Alameda County have made a startling revision to its running COVID-19 death toll. The change, quietly announced June 4, indicates 411 residents thought to have died from the virus did not meet California’s definition of a COVID-19 death.

The figure represents approximately a 25 percent drop in the number of COVID-19 fatalities believed to have occurred in Alameda County -- a dramatic figure.

“Alameda County previously included any person who died while infected with the virus in the total COVID-19 deaths for the County,” the county’s health care services agency said in a statement. “Aligning with the State’s definition will require Alameda County to report as COVID-19 deaths only those people who 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 change has caused extensive confusion, particularly because numerous public health officials nationally have said there is widespread undercounting COVID-19 deaths.

“Based on data available as of May 23, 2021, this update will decrease the overall number of deaths from 1,634 to 1,223,” the agency added.

The county was among the many Bay Area counties ravaged by the virus. The county’s seven-day positivity rate hit 9.6 percent during the second surge. It’s currently down to 0.6 percent as vaccinations increase across the county.

“Alameda County’s system of reporting COVID-19 deaths on our dashboard and to the State was implemented early in the pandemic, prior to the establishment of State guidelines for reporting deaths due to COVID-19 in their disease reporting and surveillance system, CalREDIE,” the agency explained. “The State guidelines are consistent with national death reporting practices. When the state implemented these guidelines, Alameda County became aware of the conflicting definitions and made a plan to conduct the update when cases and deaths stabilized. It is important to note that earlier adoption of the State reporting definition would not have changed the course of the pandemic, nor would it have affected the key measures, including case rate, test positivity, and hospitalizations, that drove public health responses to the pandemic.”

County health officials said the revisions do not change the fact that the virus afflicted communities of color disproportionately — particularly in low-come neighborhoods of Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward, Emeryville, San Lorenzo, Fremont, Union City, and unincorporated parts of the county. Berkeley has its own public health agency. That city reported 46 COVID-19 related deaths.

“This update does not disproportionally impact reported deaths for any specific race or ethnic group or zip code,” the agency stated.

“As with many other health disparities in our county, both cases and deaths from COVID-19 are disproportionately high in communities of color, and particularly among African American and Latinx communities,” said agency director Colleen Chawla in a May 20, 2020 letter. “These uneven COVID-19 impacts reflect historic inequitable access to a broad range of health, economic, social, and environmental resources that enable people to be healthy.”

“A comprehensive COVID-19 equity strategy for Alameda County must involve a broad coalition of partners to deliver a multi-faceted response that enables disproportionally impacted communities to effectively shelter in place, perform essential work safely, and access needed medical care,” Chawla added in that letter.

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