There’s a reason why some people believe government officials are exaggerating the number of COVID-19 fatalities.
One problem is the hodgepodge way states tally those numbers, Fox News has found.
Some states count presumed coronavirus deaths along with confirmed cases under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance issued last month. Other states don’t count those deaths.
Deaths have been classified as a COVID-19 death even after a physician or loved ones reported otherwise. And those who died “with” COVID-19 have been included in the count with those who died “of” COVID-19.
“I think a lot of clinicians are putting that condition (COVID-19) on death certificates when it might not be accurate because they died with coronavirus and not of coronavirus,” Macomb County, Mich., Chief Medical Examiner Daniel Spitz in an interview with the Ann Arbor News last month.
“Are they entirely accurate? No,” Spitz said. “Are people dying of it? Absolutely. Are people dying of other things and coronavirus is maybe getting credit? Yeah, probably.”
The doctor also said he believes there are people who died of COVID-19, but weren’t counted. Determining a COVID-19 death is based on each doctor’s best clinical impression and that varies, he said.
“There’s no uniformity,” he said.
The debate over whether the COVID-19 death count has been exaggerated has intensified as deaths from the virus continue to rise at a steady and alarming rate.
As of Friday, there were 85,974 deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was reporting 83,947 COVID-19 deaths on Friday.
On Wednesday, a report said President Trump and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force are pushing the CDC to revise the way it counts coronavirus deaths. That change could lead to far fewer deaths being counted.
Trump has privately questioned the number of COVID-19 deaths as the death toll surpassed the 80,000 mark this week, suggesting it may be incorrect or inflated by the current methodology, the Daily Beast reported.
Three administration officials said Deborah Birx, the task force response coordinator, has urged the CDC to exclude from the death count some who were presumed infected, but did not have a confirmed lab result and those who had the virus but might not have died as a direct result of it, according to the news outlet.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that at a recent discussion on COVID-19 data, Birx told CDC Director Robert Redfield that “there is nothing from the CDC that I can trust.”
According to the paper, Birx and others feared the CDC was inflating coronavirus statistics, like mortality rates and case numbers, by up to 25 percent.
But not everyone shares the view that COVID-19 deaths are being overcounted.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said during testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Tuesday that he believes the coronavirus death toll is “almost certainly higher.”
He pointed to the situation in New York City at the peak of the outbreak. New York now has more than 27,000 COVID-19 deaths.
“That there may have been people who died at home who did have COVID, who were not counted as COVID because they never really got to the hospital,” Fauci testified.
And other experts have said the COVID-19 death toll hasn’t captured all those who died of the virus because there still isn’t enough testing being done, especially in nursing homes, where the virus attacks vulnerable elders with underlying medical conditions.
Additionally, the CDC found Monday that the number of excess deaths in New York City during the pandemic suggests an undercount of 5,000 coronavirus deaths.
Last month, Factcheck.org debunked claims that hospitals were inflating the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths so they can be paid more from Medicare.
Those claims arose because hospitals can charge Medicaid and Medicare an extra 20 percent for treating a COVID-19 under the CARES Act approved by Congress to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s an implication here that hospitals are over-reporting their COVID patients because they have an economic advantage of doing so, [which] is really an outrageous claim,” UCLA senior fellow Gerald Kominski told the fact-checking site.
He said any suggestion that patients may be put on ventilators out of financial gain, not medical need, “is basically saying physicians are violating their Hippocratic Oath … it would be like providing heart surgery on someone who doesn’t need it.”
Hospitals have another motive not to inflate COVID-19 death numbers. If the numbers don’t add up, they could expose themselves to Medicare audits, and civil and criminal penalties.