Health departments across the country are outlining their process in recording COVID-19 deaths after misinformation spread online left many believing the government is lying about how many people have died.
Earlier this week, a misleading report circulated on social media claiming that only 6% of the COVID-19 deaths previously reported were actually from the virus. The report was misrepresenting data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said 6% of deaths — or about 10,000 of the 180,000 deaths in the U.S. — were from COVID-19 alone, since the virus is particularly deadly to people with underlying conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
President Donald Trump retweeted the misleading report on Twitter. The social media company took the tweet down because it was misinformation, but the rumor spread quickly online. Medical experts have condemned the misleading communications.
Scientists have said for months that people with underlying health conditions are at greater risk of getting sicker or dying from the virus. More than 40 percent of Americans are obese, a third have hypertension, 8% have asthma and more than 1 in 10 have diabetes. The South is among the areas in the country with the highest levels of chronic disease.
The coronavirus can cause other problems in the human body leading to death, such as causing someone to contract pneumonia. If the sickness caused by fluid filling the lungs leads to death, the person died from pneumonia but it was COVID-19 that caused the person to become that sick and die.
If the coronavirus caused someone to die from a heart attack, for example, the cause of death should be listed as from COVID-19, the CDC said in a webinar. The organization said it is retraining people who certify death certificates to be more clear.
Hamilton County Health Department administrator Becky Barnes said her department counts COVID-19 deaths when the death certificate lists the virus as the cause of death or a significant condition contributing to the death. The health department publishes a full set of new data — such as gender, race and age breakdowns of cases — five days a week and a more limited set of data with total cases and deaths on weekends.
"We're trying to push out as much data as possible to the community," Barnes said. "I don't know what to say to people who don't believe it. It is factual data."
Bill Christian, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health, said the state follows the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists' guidance on reporting deaths.
"The people reported as deceased due to COVID-19 have either had a test positive for the virus, or have COVID-19 listed as an underlying or contributory cause of death on the death certificate," he said.
Christian emphasized that this count does not include people who tested positive for COVID-19 but died from a gunshot wound or drug overdose. He said the state department of health is reviewing all death certificates and cross-checking laboratory results to ensure there is an accurate count.
"We are examining all available data points to be as thorough as possible in our reporting and tallying of these deaths," he said.
As of Thursday, 78 people had died from COVID-19 in Hamilton County. The three deaths this week came after the deadliest month for the virus so far. In August, 27 county residents died.
Nationwide, the virus has killed at least 186,000 Americans.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.