Federal Data Shows Increase in Deaths in San Diego County

"Across the board, there's a general consensus amongst infectious disease epidemiologists, that we are undercounting cases and we're undercounting deaths"

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Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates the death rate since COVID-19 arrived in San Diego County is far higher than in previous years. The data provides a hint that the deaths for COVID-19 are likely far higher than the 209 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in San Diego County.

And while the numbers from the CDC do not reveal the cause of death, nor do they exclude those who died in San Diego County who live elsewhere, the numbers are far higher than what has been recorded in years prior using the same metric. 

From 2015 through 2018, an average of 5,413 people died in San Diego County from February 1 through May 1, according to the CDC (LINK). This year, the agency reported 5,999 people died during the same time frame.

The CDC numbers do not specify whether COVID-19 played a factor in any of the reported deaths, for example, if a person died because they declined to seek medical attention out of fear of contracting coronavirus. 

A county spokesperson cautioned using the CDC numbers because the state and federal governments use different formulas to compute deaths in addition to the processing time for death certificates to be issued. The spokesperson, however, did confirm that the number of deaths in April, 1,988, is nearly 250 deaths higher than in the past five years. 

“April now has a preliminary death count of 1,988 which is 248 deaths above what the average number of deaths for April was between 2015-2019,” said the spokesperson. “We do expect some variation in the number of deaths when examined by month due to seasonality in certain causes of death, in particular influenza. We also expect the number of deaths to increase annually due to demographic factors including aging of the population and increases in the size of the population. We will continue to monitor this data as part of our normal surveillance activities.”

Yet, while the federal death data may decrease in the coming months, experts are confident that the numbers of deaths from COVID-19 are higher than reported. 

“There's no doubt that we've undercounted deaths associated with COVID-19,” says Dr. Matthew Boulton, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan and the Editor-In-Chief of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. “Across the board, there's a general consensus amongst infectious disease epidemiologists, that we are undercounting cases and we're undercounting deaths.”

Boulton spoke with NBC 7 Investigates by video conference. He has worked on infectious diseases for more than two decades and says that he and many of his colleagues predicted the arrival of a deadly infectious disease for more than 25 years. 

“We are in a modern era of emerging infectious diseases,” added Boulton. “I think that this was to be expected, which makes our lack of preparedness all the more disappointing. Our preparedness has really been quite poor.”

Boulton stresses the importance of keeping track of the actual death count and infection rate. Doing so, says Boulton, helps scientists study and prepare for any new pandemics in the future.

And while the CDC provisional death count points to a likelihood of a much more widespread infection rate than what is currently reported, there are other signs that show similar trends; namely, the number of deaths reported to local law enforcement agencies. 

According to data analyzed by NBC 7 Investigates, while the number of 911 calls to the San Diego Police Department has decreased since the county issued the stay-at-home order, the number of deaths reported to the police in recent months has increased. 

As first reported by NBC 7 Investigates, March 2020 saw the highest number of deaths reported to the San Diego Police Department in the last five years. April 2020 hit the same milestone.

In March of 2019, San Diego Police officers responded and made reports for 81 deaths whereas the number of reported deaths in March of this year was listed at 108.

The month of April saw similarly high numbers. Last year, police officers reported 64 deaths in April. This year that number again hit 108.

Boulton from the University of Michigan says the trend will likely continue. “You put it all together and it's easy to imagine that we've missed a lot of COVID-19 related deaths, just how many have been missed, is the big question.”

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