Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 death toll dropped by 22% this month.
That’s not a mistake—last Friday, county health officials announced a narrower criteria for deaths attributable to COVID-19, which excluded about 500 fatalities previously attributed to the disease.
A similar change took place in neighboring Alameda County last month, when officials updated their COVID-19 death definitions. Alameda County’s death toll from the virus fell from 1,634 to 1,223 once data was adjusted.
Santa Clara County used to count COVID-19 deaths by including anyone who died while infected with the disease, even if it was not the cause or a contributing cause.
For example, an individual who died in a car collision but had COVID-19 at the time would count as a “COVID-19 death.”
With the updated definition, the coronavirus has to be listed on an individual’s death certificate as at least part of the cause of death.
“We are constantly trying to get the best information to county residents as soon as we have it,” a Santa Clara County spokesperson told San José Spotlight. “In the height of the pandemic in January, we were unfortunately hearing about multiple deaths every day and couldn’t wait the several weeks for the death certificate to notify the public of our community members who were dying.”
Even with the update, COVID-19 remains the third leading cause of death for Santa Clara County residents in 2020, according a county statement. The California Department of Public Health has used the “new” definition of calculating deaths for several months. Santa Clara County’s change brings the region into alignment with the state definition.
“Now, with the success of our vaccination campaign and thankfully many fewer deaths coming in, we have been able to do a deeper analysis to ensure that the data captures those who died as a result of COVID-19 as accurately as possible,” the spokesperson said. “We will now apply that approach going forward.”
The preliminary Santa Clara County COVID-19 death count before the adjustment was 2,201 deaths. Once revised, that number dropped by 22% to 1,698.
“As we see more vaccinations and fewer cases and deaths, we have had the opportunity to more deeply analyze the deaths that came in during the height of the pandemic,” said county Assistant Public Health Officer Dr. Sarah Rudman in a public statement. “This refined approach to reporting death data will help us look back to better understand what happened in our county and look forward to better protect the health of our community in the future.”
Questions about the accuracy of the COVID-19 death count became the stuff of conspiracy theories early in the pandemic. Popular theories claimed that doctors and hospitals over-counted deaths to receive additional insurance benefits and profit from the pandemic.
“The suggestion that doctors—in the midst of a public health crisis—are over-counting COVID-19 patients or lying to line their pockets is a malicious, outrageous and completely misguided charge,” said American Medical Association President Dr. Susan R. Bailey at the beginning of the fall/winter surge in late October.
Santa Clara County officials confirmed that insurance reimbursements did not play a part in decision making.
“The county does not administer these insurance benefits,” a county spokesperson said. “Our understanding is they were always based on what is on the death certificate, so there is no change with regard to insurance reimbursements.”
According to the state’s dashboard, more than 63,000 California residents have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.