Ohio added 4,275 previously unreported COVID-19 deaths to the state’s count at the end of last week.
The Ohio Department of Health announced Wednesday it had discovered an error that caused up to 4,000 COVID-19 deaths to be left out of the state’s count. The agency blamed the error on a sole employee responsible for reviewing and reconciling death data that is entered in real-time by physicians and data from death certificates, which can take up to six months to be completed.
The department's Bureau of Infectious Diseases and Bureau of Vital Statistics completed the death reconciliation process for the period of October to December 2020, a department spokeswoman confirmed. That resulted in 4,275 deaths added to the state's toll on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
"The team is continuing the deep review of the data which will result in some additional fluctuations in the numbers," spokeswoman Arundi Venkayya said in an email.
Clearing the backlog increased Ohio's deaths by 38% – from 11,856 deaths to 16,346. Each death was recorded for the date it occurred in the state's COVID-19 data set.
An analysis of that data shows that 90% of the 4,484 total new deaths reported since Wednesday died in November and December 2020.
The two months were already the deadliest for Ohio during the pandemic, and the death toll combined nearly doubled after the state’s correction: from 1,574 to 2,884 in November and 2,859 to 5,591 in December.
How did Ohio “miss” 4,000 deaths?
The Ohio Department of Health learns of COVID-19 deaths in two ways:
- Real-time reports to the Ohio Disease Reporting Database, which is used by doctors, hospitals, local health departments and others.
- Death certificates completed by physicians and medical examiners, submitted through a different data set in the Bureau of Vital Statistics.
Data from both systems are reviewed to ensure someone who died actually died from COVID-19 complications and that the person wasn’t counted twice, one time for each system.
Death certificates can be completed up to six months after someone dies, which contributes to a delay in counting at the state level.
So while COVID-19 deaths appeared on local coronavirus dashboards and on some pages of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, they did not appear in Ohio’s coronavirus dashboards updated every afternoon.
Health Department officials were investigating how and why the error happened last week. Director Stephanie McCloud said the employee had been able to keep up until October, when cases and deaths began to climb.
Backlog fills in county discrepancy
The error seems to explain huge discrepancies identified last month by the Akron Beacon Journal.
Summit County reported 253 COVID-19 deaths in December – far more more than Franklin County's 17 deaths and Hamilton County's 37.
At the time, an Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman explained the issue by noting deaths can take several weeks or months to be reported in the state's database and death certificates can be filed six months postmortem.
Since Thursday, the state has added 449 deaths to Franklin County's tally and 421 to Hamilton County's, increases of 63% and 86%, respectively. Summit County's total increased by 77, increasing its cumulative total by 9%.