SEATTLE — The state Department of Health is investigating whether thousands of deaths in Washington from respiratory illnesses were due to undiagnosed COVID-19, health officials said Thursday.
As of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, at least 1,044 people in Washington state who had COVID-19 have died. But health officials have identified 3,000 deaths dating back to Jan. 1 that involved symptoms like pneumonia or acute respiratory syndrome, which are commonly associated with COVID-19, said Katie Hutchinson, health statistics manager.
Because they occurred before the first case was identified in the state, officials are investigating those 3,000 deaths to determine whether they’re from COVID-19 and should be added to the state death toll, Hutchinson said.
“It’s going to be extremely hard to figure out if any of these were COVID-related,” Hutchinson said. “So we’re trying to work on that.”
The state also has about 100 death certificates that mention COVID-19 but aren’t associated with a test, the Department of Health said in a statement released Thursday evening. Those deaths aren’t being reported as part of the official death toll because more investigation is needed, the statement said.
“It’s possible that the total count will grow, but we do not know by how much, and won’t know for a while,” the statement said.
Having an accurate death count helps health officials plan for and prevent the disease, said Cathy Wasserman, state epidemiologist for noninfectious conditions.
“We want to understand as fully as we possibly can the impact of COVID-19 on our population,” she said. “And that means we want to understand the full spectrum of the disease and of course the COVID-19 deaths are the most severe end of the spectrum.”
Those details will help officials understand who is most at risk and what they’re seeing in terms of manifestations of the illness, she said. With that knowledge, they can take action to prevent transmissions and deaths, Wasserman said.
The rapid onslaught of this coronavirus forced officials to part from their normal process of counting deaths, Hutchinson said. Their goal was to get the data out as quickly as possible, “in near-real time so immediate decisions could be made to protect the health of Washingtonians,” Hutchinson said.
Some COVID-19 deaths were easier to confirm. They included people who were already in the system after testing positive for the virus, she said.
They’ve also identified about 100 deaths that are not linked to a positive case, but “we can’t rule them in or out,” Hutchinson said. About five cases involved COVID-positive people whose deaths involved gunshot wounds, she said.
“Our current dashboard reflects anyone who died, that tested positive for COVID, irrespective of cause of death,” she said.
The data has a 3% variance, she said.
“There’s a commitment to provide data as rapidly as possible and we have to balance that with our commitment to accuracy,” Wasserman said. “So the data we are publishing on our website every day are the most accurate data that we have on any given day with the intention to be extremely transparent and make the information as understandable as possible.”