The United States is poised to reach a once-unthinkable number of 600,000 Covid-19 deaths. And had it not been for the removal of hundreds of deaths from official tallies in Northern California, the country would have surpassed the mark already.
More than 1,600 deaths had been tied to the coronavirus in Alameda County, Calif., which includes Oakland, when June began. But by this week, the county had reported fewer than 1,300 deaths linked to the virus.
The sudden drop had to do with longstanding questions about which deaths count as coronavirus deaths and which do not. Health departments routinely add or subtract deaths, sometimes by the dozens or even hundreds, as information becomes available about a patient’s residence or the circumstances of their death.
Alameda County, which had previously included in its tally any resident who died while they happened to be infected with the virus, recently tightened its rules to include only those for whom Covid-19 was identified as a cause of death, or for whom the virus could not be ruled out as a cause of death.
“It is important to accurately report deaths due to Covid-19 so that residents and health officials have a more precise understanding of the impact of the pandemic and response actions in our community,” county officials said in a news release. “Using the older definition of Covid-19 deaths, a resident who had Covid-19 but died due to another cause, like a car accident,” would still have been counted.
Public health officials across the United States had identified more than 599,860 coronavirus deaths through Tuesday, according to New York Times data, a figure that dropped after The Times adjusted its data to match the Alameda revision. Many experts say they believe the national total to be an undercount. Data on excess deaths, the number of deaths beyond what would be expected based on historical trends, has suggested that the official statistics may not capture the pandemic’s full toll.
As the pace of infection and death slows, public health agencies continue to revisit their death totals.
On Monday, officials in Washington State removed around 30 deaths, some dating back to April 2020, that they said were determined not to be related to Covid-19. On Tuesday, Missouri officials said they were adding 25 deaths, mostly from May, after conducting a weekly sweep of death certificates.
Over the course of the pandemic, the counting of coronavirus deaths has become more standardized. In the last year, many states, including Washington and Ohio, have adjusted their tallies to align with federal guidance, based on death certificates, which calls for counting deaths where the virus was determined to be a factor.
Oklahoma added about 1,800 deaths to its total in April as it worked to implement the federal guidance. Later that month, West Virginia removed 162 deaths because Covid-19 was not listed on the death certificate.
But death certificates, often filled out by a family doctor or county coroner, are…