KDHE secretary explains Kansas' 52 ‘new’ COVID-19 deaths

Published: Sep. 16, 2020 at 1:18 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (KWCH) - Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, addressed a recent increase in COVID-19 deaths. KDHE reported 52 new deaths since Monday, putting the total at 586 since the pandemic began. The death total includes 12 in Sedgwick County.

According to a KDHE spokesperson, the unusually high number of deaths is due to the department reconciling deaths in the state.

“In addition to deaths reported in our disease surveillance system, we also have deaths we learn about when we receive death certificates,” Kristi Zears with KDHE said in an email. “We review our death registration system on an ongoing basis and the increase we have seen this week is a result of that review.”

KDHE Secretary Dr. Lee Norman also add on Wednesday that of the 52 new deaths reported, 37 are due to the reconciliation of Vital Statistics Death Records. This means since Monday, only 15 of those are actually new deaths.

He said KDHE has two processes for verification of COVID-19 related deaths: local health departments may notify KDHE about the death of a patient with COVID-19; or providers, which are physicians and hospitals, can notify the department directly.

Norman said at the time of notification, the deaths are marked in KDHE’s disease surveillance system, Epi-Tracks. He said the department regularly reviews the COVID-19 deaths in the death registration system and updates any COVID-19 deaths not yet entered into the surveillance system. He said the department will call the attending physician, coroner or medical examiner to validate the cause of death then forward the information to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the CDC.

Dr. Norman said certifying a death has to occur within three days, but the cause of death can lag due to test results being delayed. He said the cause of death doesn’t have to be reported for months which can lead to a change in numbers, either up or down.

“For example, let’s say I don’t have any single underlying conditions and I die of COVID-19, it would most likely be acute respiratory syndrome and that would be coded out as the immediate cause of death," said Dr. Norman. “If it were COVID-19 infected, proven by the way to be COVID-19, caused by COVID-19, then COVID-19 would be listed as due to or underlying conditions causing."

When asked whether he thought the new numbers might dissuade people from believing the pandemic was real, Dr. Norman said there will always be people who don’t believe no matter what the numbers say.

Citing feedback, “both positive and negative,” Dr. Norman said the state will reassess the way they name active COVID-19 clusters to better reflect current COVID-19 cases increases. He said KDHE will begin naming active locations again on Wednesday, Sept. 23.

“We know people appreciate the transparency and information, and that allows Kansans to make informed decisions when assessing personal risk,” a statement on the KDHE COVID-19 dashboard read.

Kansas reported 971 new COVID-19 cases since Monday, putting the state at over 50,000 total cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Hospitalizations increased by 44 since Monday. The monthly positive rate now sits at 7.7%.

When it comes to COVID-19-related deaths, one question often asked concerns what classifies as a COVID-19 death. If, for example, someone dies in a car crash and is later found to have had COVID-19, could COVID-19 be determined as the cause of the death?

KDHE said that would happen only if a person’s death certificate lists COVID-19 as a cause of death or as a significant condition contributing to death. And if a physician lists COVID-19 as a cause of death and there is no lab result, KDHE confirms with the attending physician to verify that COVID-19 was the cause of death, or contributed to the death.

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