How accurate is Illinois’ count of deaths caused by coronavirus? We asked the experts

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO —   To date, the Illinois Department of Public Health reports more than 4,900 COVID-19 related deaths in the state.

Illinois and other states are releasing numbers of COVID-19 related deaths on a daily basis in the interest of informing the public as the pandemic continues. But many have contacted WGN-TV with the same question: how accurate are those numbers?

We took state death data — and your questions — to the experts, and here’s what they said:

Where does the data come from? 

Even the State of Illinois admits it’s at the mercy of local officials when it comes to the accuracy of its data. Everyone from doctors to hospitals to coroners determine what deaths are COVID-related, and report that back to the state. 

Additionally, Dr. Emily Landon of University of Chicago Medicine said nearly everyone who had COVID-19 at the time they died will be counted as a coronavirus-related death by their local health department because, “there’s no other way for them to make up statistics properly.”

“This is kind of like the fog of war.  It’s really hard to tell what’s happening in the middle of a pandemic,” Landon said.

However, Landon said “almost everyone” that has passed away with COVID-19 died, “largely because of COVID or because of complications COVID may have brought on.”

Does that mean officials are overestimating the number of coronavirus-related deaths?

Even if some deaths are being incorrectly attributed to COVID-19, experts say the pandemic likely contributed to far more deaths than the official count. 

“I think on balance the number of potentially inflated deaths is far outweighed by the number of deaths we are missing related to COVID-19,” said Dr. Sadiya Khan, Northwestern Medicine.

From January 1 through April 30, the State of Illinois reported more than 40,700 people died from all causes. 

That’s 3,896 more lives lost than the same time period in recent years, compared to 2,355 reported coronavirus-related deaths over the same period. 

That suggested there have been more than 1,500 additional deaths than previous years that are not currently being connected to COVID infection.

Dr. Khan said some of these additional deaths could be attributed to delayed or deferred care, as people avoid hospitals and doctors offices during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen a decline, anecdotally, of people presenting to the hospital for symptoms of chest pain, heart attack and stroke,”  Khan said.

Are hospitals incentivized to classify patients as having COVID-19?

Health experts say while it’s true Medicare reimbursements are higher when a patient is put on a ventilator, for example, there’s nothing to indicate what would amount to “fraud” is taking place.

“To suggest hospitals are somehow incentivized to do something that’s medically unnecessary I think is really questionable; and I don’t think there’s legitimate evidence this is occurring on a widespread basis,” said Gerald Kominski, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

When will we know the true toll?

Health experts say in the months to come, researchers will drill down on every single death looking to better understand how this pandemic played out.

Researchers say it can typically take a year or two to release mortality numbers to make sure they’ve scrubbed all the data for mistakes.

“I think it’s really important for everyone to understand whether the death count is overestimated or underestimated, it’s not going to be by a huge amount, at least not what’s happening now,” Landon said. “People are still dying every single day in this city, in this state and in this country.  Lots of them.  And this is what we need to keep an eye on.”

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