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Breaking down the data: How and when are deaths attributed directly to COVID-19?

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The Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard has been the state’s hub for COVID-19 data for months. But with the amount of sheer information, it can be difficult to understand exactly what you’re looking at.

KX News is taking some time to break down how the state reports deaths, after receiving several questions from our viewers.

There are three categories: “Deaths Due to COVID-19”, “Deaths Where COVID-19 is Not the Primary Cause” and “Pending Death Records”.

The 31 cases that are currently pending simply means an official death record has not been filed yet.

But how does the state make a distinction between deaths due to COVID-19 and deaths where it’s not the primary cause?

Really, it comes down to how a physician or coroner marks the death certificate. There’s a place to write the immediate cause and then any contributing factors. If COVID-19 is a secondary (or contributing) factor, it would fall under that second category, “Deaths Where COVID-19 is Not the Primary Cause”.

“You know, it may not be immediately what caused someone to pass away but it’s significant enough that it contributed to it, where the person may not have died as soon, or maybe, who knows, may not have died at all or been able to recover from what was the immediate cause,” explained Michelle Dethloff, the Program Manager for the Division of Disease Control at the North Dakota Department of Health.

There is a uniform standard physicians follow when filling out certificates set by the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the CDC.

But, at the end of the day, what is listed on the death record as being a primary or secondary cause is up to the physician based on their medical opinion.

“We do our best, we do it in good faith, and I think we’re right most of the time, but sometimes it’s hard to say whether it’s ‘due to’ or ‘with’,” shared North Dakota’s Chief Health Strategist Dr. Joshua Wynne.

He adds, this has always been a difficult job for physicians.

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