gunshot/covid test
© Reuters / Henry Romero; Reuters / David Ryder
Epidemiologists with the Washington State Department of Health believe COVID-19-related deaths are likely being undercounted in Washington.

In a virtual briefing with reporters Thursday, DOH officials said tracking COVID-19 death data is not an easy task.

"There are a number of nuances to the data that we report and often it is very difficult - especially quickly - to make an assessment on the cause of death," said Dr. Katie Hutchison, Health Statistics Manager for the Washington State Department of Health.

The state's current COVID-19 death count includes anyone that's tested positive for COVID-19, officials said.

"We currently do have some deaths that are being reported that are clearly from other causes. We have about 5 deaths less than 5 deaths that we know of that are related to obvious other causes. In this case, they are from gunshot wounds," Hutchison said.

Those cases are currently included in the state's COVID-19 death count, Hutchison said. But the number will be adjusted.

There are approximately 20-30 other death cases that are harder to definitely rule out, Hutchison added. The cases do not have COVID-19 listed on the person's death certificate as a cause of death, but the certificates list other things like Alzheimer's disease and cancer. It's not clear if COVID-19 played a role in the deaths, Hutchison said. The state is reviewing the cases now with the help of local health officials to try to understand the role COVID-19 might have played in the deaths, she added.

It normally takes 6-12 months to get a clarification on a cause of death, Hutchison said.

Not included in the state's COVID-19 death count is approximately 3,000 cases where the person's death certificate indicated symptoms similar to COVID-19, but it's not clear if COVID-19 actually played a role in the person's death, Hutchison said.

"We suspect that we are actually more likely to be undercounting deaths than overcounting them," Hutchison told reporters.

The Freedom Foundation released a report this week claiming the state's death total is inflated by as much as 13 percent because it counts every person who tests positive for COVID-19 and then dies.

"The problem with that is - not every person who gets COVID-19 and subsequently passes away dies because of COVID-19," said Maxford Nelsen, Freedom Foundation.

Governor Jay Inslee reacted to the report on Monday.

"I have no reason to doubt the fatality numbers we're using in the state of Washington right now," Inslee said Monday.

"The problem is you got some people out there who are fanning these conspiracy claims from the planet Pluto. And it's just disgusting what they're trying to say of all these crazy deep-state malarkey. Who are kinda suggests that this not a problem in our state. I find that hard to accept with the number of dead in our state. So, that's a problem. And I hope it gets resolved," Inslee added.

KOMO News asked DOH officials if the public should trust the data being posted to the department's COVID-19 data dashboard.

"This is a case where we have a commitment to putting out the best and most current data that we have. And with any process that [involves] data particularly, as you're bringing it in in a rapid manner, there is a variation in the accuracy of it. In general, particularly with the information that we have for deaths, there is a very small variance. And that variance decreases as time goes on and we get more information added into you know our stockpile of information that we have and we're able to clarify and clean the information," Hutchison said.

"Currently, we're reporting just over 1,000 deaths, I would say that we currently have about a 3% variance on that. So, if we were to take our 30 deaths that are questionable - that we have about a 3% variance on that. And that is really quite excellent - considering how death certificates are processed," she added.

DOH officials said it's important to have accurate information to understand who's most at risk and how COVID-19 is transmitted.

"We want to understand as fully as we possibly can the impact of COVID-19 on our population and that means we want to understand the full spectrum of disease and of course the COVID-19 deaths are the most severe end of the spectrum, but we want to understand the full spectrum of disease to better understand whose most at risk of the disease, what we're seeing in terms of manifestations of the disease and try to take actions to prevent transmissions and to prevent deaths going forward," said Dr. Cathy Wasserman, State Epidemiologist for Non-Infectious Conditions for the Washington State Department of Health.

Nelsen said the information presented in DOH's virtual briefing with reporters Thursday actually validated his reporting.

"While Gov. Jay Inslee probably won't apologize for dismissing our report as the work of 'conspiracy theorists from the planet Pluto,' we do expect his administration to be more transparent about how it reports deaths from COVID-19 and separately account for deaths caused by COVID-19 and deaths of people who merely tested positive for the virus," Nelsen said in a statement sent to KOMO News.