The number of COVID-19 deaths in Alameda County fell by a quarter Friday after the public health department changed its methodology for counting fatalities in the pandemic.
The change — which brings the county’s COVID-19 data in line with the state’s more stringent guidelines for tracking coronavirus deaths — lowers Alameda County’s official pandemic death toll by 411, to 1,223 total fatalities.
Until now, the Alameda County Public Health Department counted any fatality in which the individual tested positive for COVID-19 as part of the pandemic’s death toll regardless of whether the virus was determined to be a cause of death. The state death toll, however, only includes cases in which COVID-19 was determined to be a primary or contributing factor or could not be ruled out entirely.
For example, someone who tested positive for the virus and then died in a car crash would have been counted as a COVID-19 death by Alameda County’s health department — but not by the state.
Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss said he doesn’t know of any other counties that had been using the same expansive definition of a COVID-19 death that Alameda County used. He added that the drop in COVID-19 fatalities was so large because so many people seeking medical care for all sorts of reasons tested positive.
“Health care facilities, at least for a time, were testing everybody who came into the building,” he said.
In a news release announcing the data change, the county said, “It is important to accurately report deaths due to COVID-19 so that residents and health officials have a more precise understanding of the impact of the pandemic and response actions in our community.” Moss said that although officials knew about the discrepancy between the county and state’s numbers, they struggled to make the change in the midst of the massive winter surge.
“We were concerned about making a change at a time when the pandemic was so dynamic,” he said. “We wanted to wait until conditions were more stable to make sure that we didn’t appear to be sort of manipulating the data at a time when we were at the worst state.”
In the spring, California began reporting Alameda County’s death numbers based on the state’s preferred methodology.