Ohio Department of Health director addresses under-reporting of COVID-19 deaths

Posted at 5:02 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 19:28:12-05

CLEVELAND — The Ohio Department of Health reported 721 new coronavirus deaths on Thursday, with 650 of those from a backlog of reported deaths due to the state under-reporting from October through December of last year.

Wednesday, ODH announced as many as 4,100 deaths may not have been reported through the state’s reporting system.

“Our preliminary review indicates that at some point in October the Bureau of Infectious Diseases began to fall behind,” ODH Director Stephanie McCloud said during a media availability Thursday.

ODH processes COVID-19 deaths through two bureaus: the Bureau of Vital Statistics and the Bureau of Infectious Diseases.

The Bureau of Vital Statistics receives information through ODH’s electronic death registry system (EDRS). McCloud said deaths recorded through that system come from funeral homes and others that come with a death certificate signed by a physician.

They’re then sent to the National Center of Health Statistics for review, and officials then determine if that death certificate should be coded as a COVID-19 death. They’re then sent back to ODH’s Bureau of Vital Statistics.

McCloud said that process can take anywhere from one to six months.

Hospitals, local health districts, and urgent cares report deaths to ODH’s Bureau of Vital Statistics and its Ohio disease reporting system (ODRS). McCloud said those reports are much closer to real-time.

Early on in the pandemic, ODH decided to use the ODRS to report deaths on the COVID-19 dashboard.

“That process, though, obviously misses the COVID deaths that have been coded from the EDRS and from the National Center for Health Statistics. So there was determined that there would be a reconciliation process,” McCloud said. “Specifically when the Bureau of Infectious Disease team gets the spreadsheet from Vital Statistics, they look at that and they begin to reconcile any of the deaths that they have, which are not already included, have not been reported by hospitals, local health districts, urgent cares and have not been reported out on the public dashboard.”

McCloud said the reconciliation process ensures ODH avoids double-counting of deaths.

An employee in the Bureau of Infectious Diseases is responsible for reconciling those deaths.

McCloud said during the surge in COVID cases during October, November, and December, that employee began to fall behind and didn’t notify McCloud or other high-ranking officials.

“As part of that falling behind and either not realizing how far they were behind and the individual who is primarily responsible for reconciling that data, not either understanding how far behind the person was or not understanding the gravity of being that far behind, did not raise that issue up to the top and certainly not up to my level so that we could get additional resources deployed,” McCloud said.

The issue was eventually discovered during routine employee training.

McCloud was notified last Tuesday and said she and her team immediately got to work by beginning an internal administrative review.

“We have restructured the department. We have made some changes within the department,” McCloud said. “We have brought in additional resources to address the need to get these updated quickly.”

Staff members are currently working to manually reconcile those death numbers.

McCloud said they won’t know the exact number until the process is complete which they’re hoping to finish by next week. She said the administrative review may or may not result in additional personnel changes, but that also won’t be known until it's finished.

“We think that is about the right number. It's possible it's a little higher. It's possible it's a little lower,” McCloud said. “I don't want them to rush through it in an effort to get it done fast. I want it done right.”

When asked what she would say to Ohioans who now might become skeptical about ODH’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, McCloud said the department would continue to work on correcting the issues.

“I can say with certainty that no one was more distraught than I was last week for several days while we tried to figure this out,” McCloud said. “It is not acceptable. And we are addressing it so that the public can have confidence in this.”

The death count corrections started Thursday.

ODH said daily reported death counts will be high for the next few days before going back to normal.

Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

RELATED STORY: Up to 4,000 COVID-19 related-deaths went unreported on state’s dashboard, according to ODH

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