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Beshear: Kentucky Likely Undercounted COVID-19 Deaths

Ky. Gov. Andy Beshear giving his daily coronavirus briefing on 4/9/20.
Ky. Gov. Andy Beshear giving his daily coronavirus briefing on 4/9/20.

Kentucky likely underreported the true toll of the deadliest months of the pandemic, Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday.

When COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in November, at least one state official stopped auditing death certificates as part of the state’s review process, Beshear said. Instead, they relied on confirmation from local health departments, leaving some death records to fall through the cracks.   

Kentucky has reported a lower than average number of COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in spring of 2020. Beshear has repeatedly cited the low number of deaths as evidence of the effectiveness of the state’s response.

But on Monday, Beshear acknowledged the state’s count is incomplete. Kentucky is now performing an audit similar to those done in other states that resulted in as many as 4,000 additional COVID-19 deaths in Ohio and more than 1,500 deaths in Indiana. 

“We should expect there to be additional deaths,” Beshear said during a regular coronavirus briefing. “The amount it’s too premature to say... but we do believe there will be additional deaths and we’re going to report each and every one of them that we can confirm is a COVID death.” 

How The State Reports COVID Deaths

To date, Kentucky has reported 4,652 COVID-19 deaths. The state generally relies on reports of new deaths from local health departments, which collect information from hospitals, nursing homes and mortuaries. State vital statistics employees and epidemiologists then verify each death by looking at death certificates, testing data, clinical information and other records.

WFPL News reported in February that the skyrocketing number of COVID-19 deaths over the holidays resulted in local health departments reporting several hundred more COVID-19 deaths than the state. 

That analysis found a backlog of at least 500 COVID-19 deaths that state officials had not yet tallied as of early February. Beshear said Monday the state has since caught up on that backlog and the undercount is the result of a different process. 

Auditing COVID Deaths

In addition to receiving information from local health departments, state health officials are supposed to monitor health information systems for death certificates that listed COVID-19 as a cause or underlying cause of death. 

That way, officials could ensure they were catching all the COVID-19 deaths in the state, not just those reported by local health departments. 

But when cases and deaths began growing exponentially in November, at least one individual stopped auditing death certificates, Beshear said. 

“And so because that was stopped in November, we’re going all the way back and we are looking at every single one of them,” he said. “Do I believe it will result in additional deaths that we haven't known about? Yes, yes I do.”

Kentucky open records laws do not consider death certificates to be public records until 50 years after the date of death. The state will provide a list of all the persons who died in a given year, but the records do not include information about the cause of death.

As a result, state law limits the public’s ability to conduct its own audit of COVID-19 deaths. 

Declining Cases

While the first two waves of the pandemic resulted in case plateaus, Kentucky reported its seventh week of declining cases on Monday following the holiday surge. The decline now underway represents a first in the pandemic.   

“From our high point on January 12, our cases have fallen 72% over the last seven weeks,” Beshear said. 

The state reported 509 new cases as well as 15 new deaths. Kentucky’s positivity rate is now at 4.4%. 

Beshear also announced the state will receive an initial supply of 36,500 doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine following the federal emergency use authorization.

As of Monday, nearly 640,000 Kentucky residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Beshear said he intends to have an additional 700,000 residents vaccinated in the next month. 

On the heels of the decline, Beshear says the state will increase capacity to 60% for restaurants, barber shops and other businesses on Friday. 

This story has been updated. 

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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