SEATTLE — Washington’s death toll from the coronavirus could be two to three times the current total because some people who died of virus-like symptoms early in the outbreak were never tested, health officials said Thursday.
As of Thursday, at least 1,037 people in Washington have died from the disease, but health officials have identified 3,000 deaths dating back to Jan. 1 that involved symptoms like pneumonia or acute respiratory syndrome, which are commonly associated with COVID-19, said Katie Hutchinson, health statistics manager.
Since they occurred before the first case was identified in the state, officials are investigating those 3,000 deaths to determine whether they’re from coronavirus and should be added to the state death toll, Hutchinson said.
“It’s going to be extremely hard to figure out if any of these were covid-related,” Hutchinson said. “So we’re trying to work on that.”
Having an accurate death count helps health officials plan for and prevent the disease, said Cathy Wasserman, state epidemiologist for non-infectious conditions.
“We want to understand as fully as we possibly can the impact of COVID-19 on our population,” she said. “And that means we want to understand the full spectrum of the disease and of course the COVID-19 deaths are the most severe end of the spectrum.”
Those details will help officials understand who is most at risk and what they’re seeing in terms of manifestations of the illness, she said. This will help them take actions to prevent transmissions and prevent deaths going forward, Wasserman said.
The rapid onslaught of coronavirus forced officials to part from their normal process of counting deaths, Hutchinson said. Their goal was to get the data out as quickly as possible, “in near-real time so immediate decisions could be made to protect the health of Washingtonians,” Hutchinson said.
Some COVID-19 deaths were easier to confirm. They included people who were already in the system after testing positive for the disease, she said.
They’ve also identified about 100 deaths that are not linked to a positive case, but “we can’t rule them in or out,” Hutchinson said. About five cases involved covid-positive deaths involving gunshot wounds, she said.
“Our current dashboard reflects anybody that has died from covid irrespective of cause of death,” she said. The data has a 3 percent variance, she said.
“There’s a commitment to provide data as rapidly as possible and we have to balance that with our commitment to accuracy,” Wasserman said. “So the data we are publishing on our website every day are the most accurate data that we have on any given day, with the intention to be extremely transparent and make the information as understandable as possible.”