OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma health officials said the discrepancy between state and federal COVID-19 death counts is the result of the state re-investigating each reported cause of death.
As of Monday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported roughly 2,400 fewer deaths than the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The federal agency reported as of Monday nearly 7,000 Oklahomans had died of complications of COVID-19.
Dr. Lance Frye, the state’s interim health commissioner, said the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s COVID-19 death count will likely wind up close to those reported by the CDC once the state completes its investigations. But Frye said there will be some differences because the state is looking at things different than the CDC.
Right now, there have been about 2,000 more Oklahoma death certificates submitted indicating a COVID-19 associated death than there have been completed investigations, said Dr. Jared Taylor, state epidemiologist.
The CDC bases its data on death certificates, which are completed by medical examiners or the physician providing care for patients, he said.
“We’ve sought to be as accurate as possible,” Taylor said. “Of course that does not imply that physicians or medical examiners don’t strive to be accurate, of course they do. But they have access to different sets of data than we do and sometimes — (it’s) relatively rare — in fact, they may reach a different determination.”
While the state uses those death certificates as part of its investigative process, Taylor said anytime health officials deal with an infectious disease they’ve always done an investigation for surveillance purposes and will continue to do so.
“We feel like it would be shortchanging the public were we not to fulfill that critical obligation,” Taylor said.
He said that the state Department of Health also plans to build a link to the federal death certificate data to serve as a representative though not final tally.
“At the current time, that data is going to reflect the most timely estimate of what we have,” Taylor said. “We’re going to continue to do our very thorough investigations, but that process has been very complicated because throughout the preceding three months, many parts of our health system have been strained.”
He said there has been a decreased maintenance of the state’s public health reporting system by its partners that are less likely to input data as they decide between caring for patients or keeping records. That has had an impact on the Health Department’s ability to do investigations as promptly as it would like, Taylor said.
He said the state is not trying to minimize COVID-19 deaths and has been striving to be as timely and accurate as they can.
“There may in fact come a time when again our surveillance system becomes as timely or even more timely than the death certificates,” Taylor said.
He also said this is not a problem unique to Oklahoma; all states and public health systems are facing the same challenges.
“Different states have taken different paths in dealing with this, depending on where they were at in the pandemic,” he said. “But it’s not hard at all to go out and visit any of our neighboring states or any state throughout the country and find a different number at (the CDC) versus the official dashboard versus maybe the Johns Hopkins number.”
In an email, the CDC said it validates COVID-19 case and death numbers through a confirmation process with each jurisdiction.
COVID-19 case and death numbers reported on other websites may differ from its data tracker due to timing of reports and website updates, which may differ by up to 24 hours. Not all jurisdictions are reporting counts daily and some report them in batches, which may make COVID-19 case and death numbers appear like spikes.