How official death data underestimate COVID-19’s inequities

In the last week of December, I had a major story published at MuckRock, USA TODAY, and local newsrooms in Arizona, Oregon, and Texas. The story explains that official COVID-19 statistics underestimate the pandemic’s true toll—particularly on people of color, who are more likely to have their deaths inaccurately represented in mortality data.

This story was part of Uncounted, MuckRock’s broader project to investigate death certificate errors and other death reporting issues uncovered by looking at all excess deaths during the pandemic, not just those deaths officially marked as COVID-19. It relies on data from the CDC’s provisional mortality statistics and excess death estimates by a team of demography researchers at Boston University led by Andrew Stokes.

I’ve copied the introductory section of the story here, because I don’t think anything else I write would do a better job at summarizing it. I encourage you to read the full piece; it is the biggest (and likely most important) story that I wrote in 2022.

It’s not always easy to identify a COVID-19 death.

If someone dies at home, if they have symptoms not typically associated with the disease or if they die when local health systems are overwhelmed, their death certificate might say “heart disease” or “natural causes” when COVID-19 is, in fact, at fault.

New research shows such inaccuracies also are more likely for Americans who are Black, Hispanic, Asian or Native.

The true toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on many communities of color – from Portland, Oregon, to Navajo Nation tribal lands in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, to sparsely populated rural Texas towns – is worse than previously known.

Incorrect death certificates add to the racial and ethnic health disparities exacerbated by the pandemic, which stem from long-entrenched barriers to medical care, employment, education, housing and other factors. Mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point to COVID-19’s disastrous impacts, in a new analysis by the Documenting COVID-19 Project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation and MuckRock, in collaboration with Boston University’s School of Global Public Health; the USA TODAY Network; the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting; Willamette Week in Portland; and the Texas Observer.

The data shows that deaths from causes the CDC and physicians routinely link to COVID– including heart disease, respiratory illnesses, diabetes and hypertension–have soared and remained high for certain racial and ethnic groups.

In Arizona’s Navajo and Apache counties, which share territory with Navajo Nation, COVID deaths among Native Americans drove nation-leading excess death rates in 2020 and 2021. While COVID death rates among Natives dropped during the second year of the pandemic thanks to local health efforts, other causes of death such as car accidents and alcohol poisoning increased significantly from 2020 to 2021.

In Portland, deaths from causes indirectly related to the pandemic went up in 2021 even as official COVID deaths remained relatively constant. Black residents were disproportionately impacted by some of these causes, such as heart disease and overdose deaths – despite a county-wide commitment to addressing racism as a public health threat.

In Texas, smaller, rural counties served by Justices of the Peace were more likely to report potential undercounting of COVID deaths than larger, urban counties served by medical examiners. Justices of the Peace receive limited training in filling out death certificates and often do not have sufficient access to postmortem COVID testing, local experts say.

Experts point to several reasons for increased inaccurate death certificates among non-white Americans. These include resources available for death investigations, the use of general or unknown causes on death certificates, and how the race and ethnicity fields of these certificates are filled out.

Such barriers to accurate death reporting add on to existing health disparities that made non-white Americans more susceptible to COVID in 2021, despite widespread vaccination campaigns and health equity efforts.

“Even if you try to level the playing field, from the jump, certain populations are dealing with things that put them at greater risk,” said Enrique Neblett, a health equity expert at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. These issues include higher exposure to COVID, as people of color are overrepresented among essential workers, as well as higher rates of chronic conditions that confer risk for severe disease. “Those things aren’t eliminated just by increasing access to a vaccine,” Neblett said.

It is critical to improve data collection and reporting for deaths beyond those officially labeled as COVID because data is a “major political determinant of health,” said Daniel Dawes, executive director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine. Information on how people are dying in a particular community can shape priorities for local public health departments and funding for health initiatives.

“If there is no data, there is no problem,” Dawes said.

Sign up for the COVID Data Dispatch newsletter

Leave a Reply