Conspiracy theories have spread across social media since COVID-19 hit America that doctors, hospital and nursing home administrators, and medical examiners are adding COVID-19 as the primary cause or a contributing factor on death certificates based solely on a positive test result.
But while Dr. Greg Hess of the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner insists that’s not the case in his county, at least one public health official revealed earlier this month that some bureaucrats appear to be cooking the COVID-19 books in Maricopa County.
On Aug. 19, Rebecca Sunenshine took part in live streamed press conference to discuss Maricopa County’s COVID-19 statistics for July. And she admitted that the overall number of deaths in Maricopa County attributed to the virus has nothing to do solely with a deceased’s cause of death.
Sunenshine, the county’s Medical Director of Disease Control, stated that Maricopa County’s COVID-19 death count includes people who tested positive days, sometimes weeks, prior to dying, despite a lack of any medical evidence that the coronavirus played a role in the person’s death.
“Even if it’s not listed on their death certificate, anyone who has a COVID-19 positive test within a certain period of when they died is also counted as a COVID-19 positive death,” she said.
Sunenshine justified the health department’s action by noting it “can take several months or even longer” to analyze the cause of death, particularly if the medical examiner’s office needs to be involved.
After Sunenshine’s comments, a Maricopa County spokesperson confirmed that a positive test within 60 days of death is considered “a COVID-associated death.” The reason, according to the spokesperson, is to ensure no “underestimate” of COVID-19 deaths, even if the person simply died “with” the virus and not “due to” the virus.
In Pima County, a positive COVID-19 test result is reported as such, but only deaths directly attributable to the virus get counted as COVID-related deaths. And Hess, the chief medical examiner, says COVID-19 is not be listed on a death certificate unless the person “would not have died but for COVID-19.”
Hess, whose office handles autopsies and external examinations for Cochise County and Santa Cruz County as well, explained that if someone recently tested positive for COVID-19 but died as a result of injuries from a motor vehicle accident there is no medical reason to list the virus on the death certificate.
“The issue is whether or not someone would have died anyway without COVID-19,” Hess said, adding that his office would not report to anyone that a COVID-positive person died from a non-COVID cause.
According to Hess, there have been a few instances in which his staff has conducted a COVID-19 test as part of an autopsy, but only when it was necessary to ensure the virus did not play a role in a death. One such instance was the July 6 death of Eric Preman, an inmate of the Cochise County jail.
Preman was tested for COVID-19 because he was in custody when found unresponsive in a cell, and Hess’ office wanted to cover all bases given the circumstances. But such post-mortem testing is rare, Hess said.
The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) has frequently noted that statistical reporting is “more accurate, more complete” if it comes from death certificates rather than other methods of tracking.
And it is the COVID-19 statistics on the ADHS website that many residents like DeAnna Sutter of Marana rely on in making decisions about her work and family activities, especially with several elderly relatives to care for in the Mesa-Tempe area.
Sutter calls news that Maricopa County has been disseminating misleading death counts “beyond appalling.” She questions the ethics of the politicians and government employees involved in doing so.
“I’m sure 99 percent of us expect the COVID death counts to mean people who died as a direct result of COVID or because the virus aggravated their preexisting illness or condition,” Sutter said. “If the virus isn’t really as deadly as the numbers make it out to be then we need to know that, now.”
Sutter added that she doesn’t understand what legitimate value there is in misrepresenting the number of COVID-19 deaths by adding in people who died of something completely unrelated.
“I’ve never heard of reporting people with cancer who die in car crashes as being a cancer-related death,” she said. “It’s the most ridiculous and deceitful thing I’ve heard during this whole COVID pandemic.”
For retired respiratory therapist Jeffery Collier, he sees the Maricopa County policy as something more sinister, in that federal financial aid will likely be tied for years to a county’s or a state’s positive tests, hospitalizations, and death tolls.
“It has to be about the money,” Collier said. “Why else would Maricopa County establish a public health policy that they know will result in overcounting their COVID-19 deaths by dozens, if not hundreds of cases.”
Collier believes it would be procedurally impossible for public health officials to go back over death and medical records to verify the true number of deaths in Maricopa County caused or contributed to by COVID-19 and not simply the result of a positive test result in the two months before death.
“Of course even if they could go back and get the facts correct they wouldn’t,” he said. “Because what mayor wants to admit they messed up and may need to give some of those big federal checks back?”