RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — Skepticism about how COVID-19 deaths are tallied is rampant in some circles. "She had previous health issues. Doesn’t mean that she died from COVID," is one common argument. "Nobody dies from anything but COVID anymore," is another of the many.
To help the public better understand how COVID-19 deaths are reported and confirmed in Riverside County, Riverside University Health System - Public Health released a video earlier this week featuring RUHS's Chief of Epidemiology Wendy Hetherington, who described the counting process in layman's terms.
For starters, RUHS-Public Health does not count people in which COVID-19 does not contribute to death, Hetherington said.
"For example, if someone died due to a car collision or a drug overdose or cancer, that death is not counted as a COVID death," she explained.
Instead, the county uses the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists' definition for what is counted as a COVID-19 death, which is "someone whose final cause of death is COVID, or COVID is a significant contributing factor leading to that person's death," Hetherington explained.
The process goes like this: Each week, RUHS-Public Health receives a log from the Riverside County Sheriff-Coroner's Bureau with deaths from the previous week. RUHS-Public Health also works with the county's Office of Vital Records, which records every Riverside County death, according to Hetherington.
Hetherington said she reviews all the death certificates and the coroner's log. If a deceased person actually meets the COVID-19 case definition, then she confirms that death in the state's COVID-19 reporting system.
Hetherington provides examples. In one, she describes a 51-year-old man who died with no underlying health conditions. His final cause of death was listed as acute hypoxic respiratory failure due to pneumonia due to COVID-19.
Another example was a 48-year-old person (no gender provided) whose final cause of death was also recorded as COVID-19. The patient had significant underlying health conditions, including hypertension, diabetes and obesity, but COVID-19 was listed as a significant contributing factor, Hetherington explained.
A third case was an 80-year-old (no gender provided) whose final cause of death was listed as cardiopulmonary failure and acute stroke, but significant contributing factors were COVID-19 and chronic kidney disease. Like the other two cases, this person was also counted as a COVID-19 death, Hetherington said.
As of Wednesday night, the county's COVID-19 death toll stood at 1,951, according to RUHS-Public Health data.
Hetherington said in the video, "Every single one of those individuals is someone's mother, grandparent, friend, colleague, loved one — and my heart goes out to you if you lost a loved one this year to COVID."