Whatcom’s number is 36, using new state cause-of-death categories

WHATCOM ­— The county death toll from COVID-19 stood at 36 on Thursday, July 16. If that seems like a drop from before, you’re correct — it is.
 
It’s five fewer deaths than the 41 cited by the Whatcom County Health Department back on July 7.
  
In fact, the number of confirmed COVID deaths for Whatcom County was officially at 33 because of three still in the process of determination.
  
On Tuesday, July 14, the Washington State Department of Health put out a new Death Category Report. Out of a total 1,458 coronavirus-related deaths in the state, it was determined that in 65 of those deaths “COVID-19 was ruled out as a cause or contributing factor.” Nine deaths were found to be due to homicide, suicide or accident, and 56 were natural deaths unrelated to COVID-19. 
  
Five of those non-COVID determinations were for Whatcom County, revising the local tally.
  
This is what the state says: Anyone who had a positive COVID-19 test and died is included in the raw total number. From there, in its analysis the state is now using five categories: confirmed deaths, pending deaths, suspect deaths and non-COVID-19 deaths. 
  
Confirmed deaths are deaths occurring among those who had a positive COVID-19 test and whose death certificate includes COVID as a cause or contributing factor. As of July 14, this accounted for 89% of state deaths.
  
COVID-like confirmed deaths could be of factors such as respiratory distress or failure, SARS, pneumonia or hypoxia. 
  
Pending deaths are deaths whose death certificate is still pending, or deaths that are missing a cause of death on the death certificate. Many of these deaths are very recent ones, out-of-state deaths of Washington residents, or complex deaths needing more information from the local medical examiner or coroner. Only 2% of state deaths are in this category.
  
Suspect deaths are natural deaths (among those who tested positive for COVID-19) which do not include the COVID terms listed above on the death certificate. The Department of Health follows up on all suspect deaths to rule in or rule out COVID-19 as a cause or contributor to death. Five percent were in this category.
  
Non-COVID-19 deaths are those that occur among persons who tested positive for COVID-19, but  died of unrelated causes. This includes homicides, suicides, overdoses, accidents and natural deaths where COVID-19 has been ruled out as contributing to the death. Four percent of state deaths on the original list were determined to be non-COVID-19.
  
From now on, the state death accounting will be through these categories. 
  
On July 14 Whatcom County had one pending death and two suspect deaths, which will eventually be put into the COVID confirmed or non-COVID categories.
  
In addition, the state is tracking additional “deaths probably due to COVID.” In these, the death certificate lists COVID-19 as a cause or contributor to the death, but there was not a known positive COVID-19 PCR test of the person. The state has identified 80 deaths that are probable deaths, with 10 of these in Whatcom County.
  
The report highlights the complexity of the process of determining cause of death by breaking down the ways in which state Health data collection teams categorize each death, and how they work over time to investigate deaths and categorize them appropriately.
  
“As we’ve highlighted before, the collection and finalization of death data is normally a long process. It may take up to a year to get finalized counts on COVID-19 deaths,” a news release stated.