‘We have this rumor out there’: Experts dispute assertion that COVID-19 death count is exaggerated

ST. GEORGE — Local, state and national leaders in both the medical and government fields said Thursday that a statistic released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week has been misinterpreted by some to say that fewer people have died from the coronavirus than has previously been stated.

Undated file photo of a drive-thru coronavirus COVID-19 test. | Photo by vichie81, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

David Heaton, the spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said the new information doesn’t mean that a large number of people didn’t die of the coronavirus. Rather, it means that a large number of people had an underlying condition leading to their death from the virus. 

“We’ve talked about how most all of our deaths had underlying health conditions since the beginning, and the (Utah Department of Health) has indicated percentages and descriptions of how COVID deaths are determined on their website for months, which is why precautions are specifically intended to protect the high-risk populations,” Heaton said. 

The Utah Department of Health coronavirus website defines those counted as deaths in the following way: 

Deaths reported by UDOH include confirmed and probable cases as defined by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists case definition. This includes: 1) confirmed cases with a positive COVID-19 PCR result and no alternative cause of death noted on the death certificate or reported by the Office of the Medical Examiner, 2) probable cases where the death certificate lists COVID-19 disease or SARS-CoV-2 as a cause of death or a significant condition contributing to death and no alternative cause of death reported by the OME, and 3) probable cases with COVID-19 symptoms and close contact to a laboratory confirmed case and no alternative cause of death reported by the OME or the death certificate. Death counts are provisional and subject to change as investigations are completed.

The Utah Department of Health said as of Thursday, 414 people statewide have died from the coronavirus since the first case was reported in the state nearly six months ago.

Chart shows deaths and hospitalizations in Southern Utah from the coronavirus since May 1 as of Sept. 3, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

There have been 27 deaths in Southern Utah, according to the Southwest Utah Department of Public Health, though the death rate locally has gone down drastically in the last month. There were three deaths in the local five-county area in August compared to 13 in July and only one death since Aug. 11. 

The statistic released on the CDC website concerns “comorbidities,” or when there are more than one chronic diseases or conditions in a patient. For example, a person who dies of a heart attack may also have diabetes. While they had diabetes, it was not the primary reason for the person’s death over the blockage in the patient’s arteries.  

Of the 186,693 Americans who have died since February from the coronavirus, according to John Hopkins University, the CDC said only 6% had no other comorbidities or additional conditions.

That doesn’t mean only 6% actually died of COVID-19, it means that 6% had no other medical conditions. Medical experts have asserted since the beginning of the pandemic that those with preexisting conditions are most prone to experiencing the worst effects of COVID-19.  

However, there are some who have interpreted the statistic to mean that only 6% of those who are listed as dying from the coronavirus actually died from it. Many messages on social media say about only around 9,000 people nationwide actually dying of the virus, as opposed to the nearly 200,000 as claimed.

On Sunday, President Donald Trump retweeted a claim from part of the QAnon movement that the CDC indicated only 6% of the nation’s death toll to the coronavirus was actually due to COVID-19. Twitter removed the post under its rules concerning the spreading of “potentially harmful, misleading information related to COVID-19.” 

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert walks through the rotunda to a COVID-19 briefing July 30, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

During a press conference Thursday at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Gov. Gary Herbert spoke to the assertion that the death count is exaggerated. 

“We have this rumor out there that we’re mislabeling deaths like there’s some conspiracy going on,” Herbert said. “Some have looked at the data and see something it doesn’t mean. We know people who don’t trust the government have tried to see something in these figures. But it is more deadly than the traditional flu.”

The CDC estimates that 353 people in Utah died of the flu in the 12 months of 2018, which is less than the 414 that have died statewide of COVID-19 in half the time. 

But compared to the rest of the nation, Utah and Southern Utah are a virtual oasis as the state has one of the lowest coronavirus mortality rates in the country.

For example, in Nevada’s Clark County, which is just an hour’s drive south of Southern Utah, about as many people died of the coronavirus on Wednesday – 23 – as have died in six months in Washington County. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC Television’s “Good Morning America” that he wanted to make it clear that the CDC comorbidities statistic doesn’t reduce the number that have died of the virus. 

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Sept. 3, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

“That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19. They did,” Fauci said on the television program. “So the numbers you’ve been hearing – there are 180,000-plus deaths – are real deaths from COVID-19. Let there not be any confusion about that.”

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, repeated her assertion that the state disagrees with another piece of CDC guidance from last week that said testing may not be necessary for those who have been exposed to others with the virus or are without symptoms.

“There was a lot of attention paid to the CDC announcement last week. We are going to encourage asymptomatic individuals to still get tested,” Dunn said.

However, between the recent guidance from the CDC and assertions by some politicians that the CDC is having its decisions dictated by the White House, Dunn said she still thinks the health body has credibility. 

“I still have a lot of faith in the CDC moving forward as far as the expertise in its staff,” Dunn said.

A positive month in Utah 

Southern Utah and the state as a whole finished up what health officials said was a positive month as far as the rate of coronavirus-related hospitalizations, deaths and new cases goes. 

“We’ve done such a good job, it’s easy to brag and not stay humble about this,” Herbert said. “But it doesn’t mean we’ll be out of the woods yet.”

On Thursday, Salt Lake County became the last in the state to move from the orange risk level to yellow. 

Chart shows cases in Southern Utah from the coronavirus from May 1 to Sept. 3, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

While not a total flattening of the curve, the upward trend of new cases in Southern Utah that had seemed to be skyrocketing in July slowed down in August. Health officials have attributed much of the improving picture on more people practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings when they can’t, as well as many private stores and markets enacting mandatory mask policies. 

According to statistics from the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, Southern Utah has gone from a seven-day average of 32.7 new coronavirus infections per day to  20.3 now. 

The most drastic change, though, has been in hospitalizations, where there is no longer talk of Dixie Regional Medical Center getting close to capacity.  

Intermountain Healthcare, the parent of DRMC as well as Cedar City Hospital and Garfield Memorial Hospital, said in a Facebook presentation this week that they have seen a large drop in COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the last month, providing a graph showing the downward curve. 

A chart by Intermountain Healthcare shows the rise in July and fall in August of coronavirus hospitalizations at its hospitals. | Chart courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“Things have really changed in the last month,” Albert Martinez, chief analytics officer for Intermountain, said. “Our hospitals have seen fewer COVID patients who need that advanced care.” 

There are, however, some not-so-positive signs to start off the month. The percentage of tests that have come back positive has gone up from 8.7% to 9.4% in the last week. Dunn said it is unclear what has caused the increase, but she said it is not the reopening of schools, which she said has not had a discernable effect on the state’s numbers. 

Late last week, local hospitalizations from those infected with the coronavirus went into the double-digits for the first time in nearly a month. 

And if there’s anything August lacks, it’s the big holiday weekends that have created new spikes in cases in the past. That changes this weekend with the Labor Day holiday, causing a word of caution from the governor. 

“This is the last opportunity to go out and have fun for the summer. We just want you to be careful,” Herbert said. “Don’t be foolish. We don’t want to have a spike.”

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Sept. 3, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 3,664 (20.3 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 2,860(15.1 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 660 (4.9 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 65 (0.1 per day, steady)
  • Garfield County: 46 (0 per day, steady) 
  • Beaver County: 33 (0 per day, steady) 

Deaths: 27 (0 per day, falling)

  • Washington County: 22
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 8 (rising)

Recovered: 3,286

Current Utah seven-day average: 394 (rising)

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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