Colorado Changes The Way Coronavirus Deaths Are Reported To The Public

Polis Coronavirus Emergency Rachel Herlihy
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy listens as Gov. Jared Polis declares a state of emergency to deal with the spread of coronavirus Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

After a state representative and a rural county coroner raised questions about the way Colorado is reporting COVID-19 deaths, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment said today it has changed its practices.

The difference? As of Friday, Colorado now has 878 death certificates showing the death was due to COVID-19. But the state has reported 1,150 deaths as having occurred “among” people with COVID-19. In nearly every case, the individual tested positive for the disease before death.

This requires some explaining.

When a person dies, the attending physician or county coroner fills out and signs a death certificate listing a cause of death, and the factors that contributed to that death. The process is straightforward and forms the basis of the vital records maintained by the state.

But not all states keep their records the same way.

So when a novel disease like COVID-19 comes along, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention like to track the toll from that disease in a way that eliminates differences between state reporting systems.

That’s why they created the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. It smooths out the differences between the states and asks everyone to report deaths the same way.

“There are two different systems and they are counting things differently,” said state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy. “And we recognize that is challenging and confusing.”

And, now, as some Coloradans push to re-open businesses more quickly, the difference in classifications has created concern that the state is trying to make the pandemic seem deadlier than it is. State Representative Mark Baisley, a Republican from Roxborough Park, asked for an investigation of whether CDPHE’s leader was contributing to fear over the coronavirus by altering death certificates.

On a Friday afternoon conference call with reporters, Kirk Bol, Colorado’s vital statistics program manager at CDPHE, flatly denied that was happening.

“We do not change death certificates,” Bol said. “And we have not changed any death certificates in response to COVID-19.”

Bol said that the 272-death gap between the number reported through Friday to the national surveillance system, and the number of death certificates processed by CDPHE will gradually close as the counties and the state catch up on getting death certificates filed.

But for now, the state will report both numbers each day so Coloradans can judge for themselves how deadly the pandemic has been.

Other state procedures for reporting COVID-19 data remain the same. On Friday, the number of people hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 fell below 500 for the first time since March 31, and is now at 497.