Colorado Amends the Way It Counts COVID-19 Deaths, Lowers Death Toll

May 17, 2020 Updated: May 17, 2020

Colorado health officials on May 15 announced a change in the way they count COVID-19 deaths in the state, lowering the death toll from more than 1,000 to 878.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) said in a statement that it made the changes because it had previously been counting those who had tested positive for the CCP virus (commonly known at the novel coronavirus) at the time of death but who had died of other causes.

Going forward, CDPHE said that the state will begin reporting both the number of deaths among COVID-19 cases and the number of deaths due to COVID-19.

The new changes state that 878 people have died as a direct result of COVID-19 as of May 9, while another 272 had tested positive but died of other causes as of May 15.

“We understand it is confusing that there are different systems and ways of counting deaths. It’s important to understand the difference between the official cause of death and the list of deaths among COVID-19 cases,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist.

The CDPHE also noted that the death discrepancy was in part due to how the state reports statistics to the federal National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System, which provides the underlying data that public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) need to monitor disease trends, study risk factors, evaluate prevention and control efforts, and provide targeted public health resources.

“Having these two systems in place has potentially created some confusion, and we apologize for that,” Herlihy said.

CDPHE assured residents that it doesn’t change information on death certificates and doesn’t question or try to change a physician’s diagnosis or causes-of-death determination, with Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer at CDPHE, noting that “every single death is tragic, regardless of the circumstances.”

“We know this virus can be deadly and can complicate other serious medical conditions and hasten death. As public health practitioners, we need to look at data that helps us understand disease transmission and protect people,” he said.

Colorado reported its first COVID-19 death on March 31, but faced scrutiny over its method of counting CCP virus deaths, on May 14, when Montezuma County Coroner George Deavers told Denver-based Fox affiliate, KDVR, that one man who reportedly had COVID-19 had died from “ethanol toxicity,” or alcohol poisoning.

On May 15, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis applauded the state’s efforts to “ensure that we are as transparent as possible with our reporting and therefore fully supports efforts by CDPHE to specify how many deaths are specifically due to COVID-19 and not just specific to CDC guidelines that include people who died with Coronavirus but not necessarily from it.”

“What we are seeing today is a reflection of that. It’s important to note that number of deaths due to COVID-19 includes data through May 9 and does not reflect cases since then. State epidemiologists believe that once the data is up to date, then the number will, unfortunately, be higher,” a statement released by his office reads.