As Riverside County’s coronavirus death toll approaches 2,000, many wonder how COVID-19 deaths are counted.
Local experts say it’s based on a case definition provided by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.
“That is someone whose final cause of death is COVID, or COVID is a significant contributing factor leading to that death” said Wendy Hetherington, Chief Epidemiologist for the County of Riverside Department of Public Health.
Hetherington says each week, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Coroner’s office provides a list of individuals who passed away the week before.
“And so what I do as an Epidemiologist is review those death certificates and review the coroner’s log to make sure that the individual meets the case definition of a COVID death and then I confirm that death within our state reporting system,” said Hetherington.
For patients with underlying health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, the CDC says COVID is listed as the cause of the virus “if the disease initiated the train of morbid events leading directly to death.”
In other words, if it wasn’t for COVID, their current pre-existing issue wouldn’t have killed them.
And Hetherington says each local case is thoroughly reviewed.
“We do not report and confirm people dying of COVID if they died of another cause in which COVID did not contribute to that death,” said Hetherington.
Some have also questioned if hospitals receive additional funding for reporting COVID deaths, but Riverside County health officials say, that’s not true.
The CARES Act outlines that hospitals will receive a 20 percent premium for COVID patients who are on Medicare, however, there is no add-on for deaths.
Sunday morning President Trump joined the conversation, tweeting the number of cases and deaths nationally are “exaggerated” adding “when in doubt, call it COVID.”
But Dr. Anthony Fauci offered a rebuttal.
“In many areas of the country the hospital beds are stretched, people are running out of beds, running out of trained personnel, they’re exhausted right now, that’s real, that’s not fake,” said Dr. Fauci.
And Hetherington says it’s hard to watch the local death toll rise.
“These are mothers, grandparents, colleagues. My heart goes out to you if you lost a loved one,” said Heatherington.