How NJ counts COVID-19 deaths and what the daily death total means
On Tuesday, New Jersey officials reported an additional 334 deaths attributed to COVID-19, bringing the state total to 8,244. But that doesn’t mean 334 people died from coronavirus the previous day, or even the previous week.
According to Dr. Ed Lifshitz, the director of communicable disease services for the state Department of Health, gathering this data can sometimes take a while to compile.
"In order for us to know that somebody died, that has to get entered into the system somehow. That can either happen in the hospital if the person died in the hospital, (or through) a local health department or an investigation," he explained Tuesday.
“We have an outbreaks investigation team ... that follows up on people to see what their outcome was and whether they passed away or not. Or we may get that information from a death certificate," he said. “All those different sources take a different period of time ... In fact, we do not know when that person died in most cases.”
“While we report out these numbers of deaths every day, we always make a point of saying they don’t occur within the last 24 hours," he added. "Those numbers coming back will include deaths as far back as about a month.”
In order for a death to be considered a confirmed COVID-19 fatality two things must happen: a positive lab test result and a confirmed death.
In some cases, if an individual is gravely ill with some other ailment and they test positive for COVID-19 and then pass away a short time later, the official cause of death will be listed as the novel coronavirus even though it’s possible there may have been another condition that caused the person to die.
While the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 appear to be high, some experts believe the number could be higher. Department of Health data from April shows that 14,220 people died in that one month from any and all causes. But last April, less than 6,000 people died in New Jersey. It will take weeks for health officials to determine the causes of death for all those cases.
Lifshitz said in rare instances, the total number of COVID-19 deaths will be adjusted downward.
“Sometimes upon further investigation something is discovered, like maybe they weren’t a New Jersey resident, they might have lived somewhere else instead, so you don’t get counted in our numbers,” he said.
He also pointed out sometimes the total number of deaths will spike but that’s not really the case.
“If our investigations people do a lot of work, or actually manage to sit down in front of the computer and enter that information all at once, you might see that jump going up,” he said.