Many San Diego County Pandemic Victims Go Uncounted

by on October 22, 2020 · 0 comments

in Health, San Diego

by Jill Castellano and Mary Plummer / inewsource / October 21, 2020

A 22-year-old died of an apparent overdose on his birthday after getting furloughed.

An 81-year-old with a chronic health condition couldn’t go to the gym and lost her life five months later.

A farmworker in a family of undocumented immigrants contracted COVID-19, but — too scared to share his personal information — was never tested.

None of them are captured in the county’s official list of coronavirus deaths, but their families say all of them died because of the pandemic.

A review of state and county public health data finds many more people have died as a result of the pandemic than the San Diego County public health office has acknowledged publicly.

Estimates from an inewsource analysis show that roughly 1,181 more county residents have died from March through August than in a normal year. The number is 66% higher than the county’s official COVID-19 death total during that time.

The uncounted deaths are concentrated in minority communities and inside residents’ homes, inewsource found. More than a third of the people excluded from the county’s death total are Hispanic, and deaths are increasing faster at home than in hospitals.

While the public health office’s data only captures people who tested positive for COVID-19, inewsource’s analysis is much broader. It includes people who died from the virus but were never tested, as well as those who didn’t contract it but lost their lives because of the pandemic anyway.

The analysis is an estimate of what epidemiologists call excess deaths, or the rise in deaths beyond what’s expected in a normal year, based on data since January 2017.

“Excess deaths mean the deaths that could have been avoided, potentially,” said Mark Hayward, a mortality researcher at the University of Texas Austin.

“It’s a blip,” he added. “There’s a cause here, and the cause is not getting the care that people need.”

In an email, a spokesperson for the county’s health agency, Sarah Sweeney, said the analysis was “premature” and should not be conducted until after the pandemic is over, if at all.

Another staff member from the agency also questioned the findings, saying this kind of calculation should be used after floods or wildfires rather than during pandemics.

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at UC Irvine who studies pandemic diseases, disagreed.

“That is absolutely wrong,” said Noymer, after learning of the county’s position. He has worked on excess deaths calculations in Orange County during COVID-19.

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Why this matters

Accurate death and infection counts are crucial tools for protecting the public from disease, especially in a pandemic. Experts say numbers that don’t capture the full scope of the loss can lead to dire mistakes in how financial relief and mitigation efforts are distributed.

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