RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — We rely on numbers to make decisions, track trends and tell stories, but sometimes numbers can be deceiving.

“There’s certainly, at least from my perspective, appears to be a lot of confusion in the public,” said Tim Powell, director of the Virginia Department of Health Office of Epidemiology, Division of Informatics and Information Systems. “I think one of the challenges here is helping people understand the process.”

When it comes to counting deaths from COVID-19, Powell said, there is no single system.

Take a nursing home, for instance. If a health department worker is following a COVID-19 patient who dies there, that death is almost instantly counted. However, most deaths from COVID-19 are reported from a death certificate, which VDH doesn’t see for about 30 days. Then, it has to be cross-checked before adding it to the list.

Several days this week, VDH reported a higher than usual number of COVID-19 deaths. Powell said that’s because the “person who essentially clicked the button missed the button, and so we fell behind in that transmission internally for about two weeks.”

Powell told 10 On Your Side that has been remedied.

“We essentially just took the person out of the mix and automated that feed that’s coming across.”

Powell explained that the number you see in a single day really represents deaths over weeks.
To complicate matters, it may not even be a true reflection of COVID-19 deaths.

“If you think about influenza … same game … we don’t really know how many people die from flu.”

If it’s on the death certificate, it’s counted. For instance, a cancer patient in hospice could count as a COVID-19 death if they also have the virus.

“Unfortunately it’s part of the inherent bias of trying to rapidly respond to things,” Powell said.

So why not slow it down?

“In all honesty, we’re following directives that are coming down from the federal level.”

People want instant information, a daily number. So, Powell said that is what they’re giving.

“I really do stand by the fact that people are working incredibly hard to make it as accurate as we possibly can.”

If you want to see what COVID-19 is doing in your community Powell recommends looking not at a single number but a trend. Look for the rate of incidence under the locality tab of the main VDH daily dashboard.

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