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Q&AZ: Can Arizona's COVID-19 Death Rate Truly Be So High?

Published: Monday, May 10, 2021 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, May 10, 2021 - 8:36am
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Tragically, Arizona’s rate of death from COVID-19 has been among the highest in the nation, with more than 17,000 lives lost. It’s a shocking number, so one listener asked through KJZZ's Q&AZ reporting project how the total gets calculated, and if it’s possible the number is inflated. 

With this virus, many fatalities have occurred in hospitals or long-term care facilities where deaths are recorded by medical staff, according to Dr. Bob England, former director of both Maricopa and Pima Counties' public health departments. But England said counties also keep track of positive COVID-19 test results and cross-check those with other death records.

“If it was a COVID diagnosis and within a couple of months they died from a cardiac complication or pulmonary complication, something that makes sense, those will get counted,” England said.  

Arizona Department of Health Services director, Dr. Cara Christ wrote in a June 2020 blog post, that the state also counts some "probable" cases.

"A probable death is one that hasn’t had a positive diagnostic test but the physician cited a COVID-related cause as their cause of death. We started adding these deaths to our data counts at the beginning of May as a result of recent guidance by the National Center for Health Statistics on how states should certify deaths due to COVID-19 using death certificate surveillance. Approximately 7% of Arizona’s deaths have been identified through this process," Christ wrote. 

England said these methods of counting COVID-19 deaths rely on medical evidence and leave almost no room for inflation. But is there a chance some virus deaths are missed?

“Absolutely," England said. 

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said that becomes obvious when you compare mortality rates for the state year-by-year.

“Total deaths of all causes is what it is, and it was way above what you would normally expect and what we have seen year in and year out for the last 10 years,” Humble said.

January report from Humble's association shows Arizona recorded nearly 15,000 more deaths from any cause in 2020 than in 2019. But as of Dec. 31, 2020, the state had attributed just 8,864 deaths to COVID-19. In July and December, when COVID-19 infections were soaring in Arizona, the report shows the per capita rates of death in the state jumped more than 60% over the previous year's rates. 

Humble said some of Arizona's additional deaths in 2020 may be attributable to people delaying medical care for other illnesses or injuries out of concerns about crowded hospitals or exposure to the virus. But Humble and England both said the state’s COVID-19 death total is almost guaranteed to be an undercount.

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