Imagine if someone had said these words in October:
“In the midst of everything COVID, people were sort of putting down that cause of death as COVID … It is important to go back and do this accounting to see if COVID was actually the cause of death.”
It would have taken five minutes for Snopes and PolitiFact to cancel this person entirely. They would have been branded a conspiracy theorist, a blackguard, a scoundrel. If they had any platform, it would be taken away posthaste. You could even make a case there would be Facebook and Twitter censorship involved — this being COVID-19 misinformation, after all.
But those words were spoken Friday by University of California San Francisco professor of medicine Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert. She was speaking to San Francisco’s KPIX-TV regarding the announcement that Santa Clara County, California, had revised its official COVID-19 death toll downward by 22 percent.
According to KPIX, the announcement was made after the county “refined its approach in reporting the data.”
Santa Clara County — home to San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley — is the sixth-largest among California’s 58 counties in terms of population, with 1,927,470 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by Cubit.
This isn’t minor, in other words.
Before refining its approach, the county had recorded 2,201 COVID deaths. Now, that’s been reduced to 1,696.
“It is important to go back and do this accounting to see if COVID was actually the cause of death,” Gandhi said, according to KPIX.
“I think that transparent communication is an upside, I mean, in the sense that it’s true that if we did this across the nation, it would bring our death rate lower. A downside of that, could be that people will say, ‘Well, it wasn’t as serious as you said.’”
Gandhi added she thought this was going to encourage coronavirus vaccine holdouts to get vaccinated.
“Because a lot of people have kind of said, ‘I’ve heard people are dying anyway of COVID, what’s the point?’ And it is very important to say, ‘No, did they die of COVID or were they in the hospital for something else and they died of that?’” Gandhi said. “That helps people say, ‘Oh, the risk of breakthrough infection is so low I want to go ahead and get vaccinated.’ So I think it’s very good for vaccine hesitancy.”
Santa Clara County wasn’t the only county in California to reassess its data, either.
On June 4, the number of deaths in the Bay Area county attributed to COVID-19 dropped from 1,634 to 1,223. Alameda County, home to Oakland and Berkeley, is the seventh-largest in the state in terms of population with 1,656,754 residents.
“According to the Health Department, the 25% decrease was made to comply with the state’s definition of a COVID-19 death, which requires COVID-19 to be a direct or contributing factor or a situation in which it can’t be ruled out,” KGO reported.
“Alameda County previously included any person who died while infected with the virus in the total COVID-19 deaths for the County,” wrote Neetu Balram with the Alameda County Health Department in a news release dated June 4.
By way of example, Balram wrote:
“Using the older definition of COVID-19 deaths, a resident who had COVID-19 but died due to another cause, like a car accident, this person would be included in the total number of reported COVID-19 deaths for Alameda County. Under the updated definition of COVID-19 deaths, this person would not be included in the total because COVID-19 was not a contributing factor in the death.”
At the time, another doctor at the University of California San Francisco, epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford, told KGO he was “betting it’s very specific to Alameda County, which had a lot of cases early on and had to do a lot of on-the-fly definitions and systems and now they are being brought into alignment.”