COVID-19 miscount is alarming state failure

Everyone makes mistakes, but some are a lot bigger than others.

One of the biggest happened when the Ohio Department of Health recently admitted it failed to report more than 1 in every 4 Ohio COVID-19 deaths.

What makes this issue even more alarming is the discovery that the ODH assigned a single person to handle this vital piece of information, and state officials didn’t leave the impression that it’s a huge problem.

Hardly anyone was prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eleven months into it and people still are struggling to adjust to significant changes in our daily lives.

Most have followed the rules, like them or not, and with vaccinations underway, there is hope we’re turning a corner.

Yes, it’s going to be several months before all who want the inoculation will get it. But Ohio is seeing a reduction in reported COVID-19 cases after going from 30,830 in September to 279,317 in December.

With Ohio COVID-19 death numbers going through the roof in November and December, we didn’t know the real story. That should raise concerns about how state agencies, particularly the ODH, are responding to the pandemic.

The department has been in a state of flux since Dr. Amy Acton’s June resignation. After Gov. Mike DeWine announced in September that Dr. Joan Duwve would take the job, she decided a few hours later not to accept it because of her concerns about harassment that Acton received.

In November, DeWine moved Stephanie McCloud from the head of the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to lead ODH. She’s not a doctor, but DeWine also named Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff as the chief medical officer.

The undercount of COVID-19 deaths was discovered during a routine employee training.

The issue really is how the system was set up.

The department had a single person manually handle the COVID-19 data by comparing death certificate information to a database used by doctors and health departments.

It caused reported deaths to jump from 11,856 Feb. 10, when the problem was revealed, to 16,340 Sunday — only four days later. Nearly all those fatalities were corrections to the underreported amount.

The ODH initially said “as many as 4,000 COVID-19 cases may have been underreported through the state’s reporting system.” Even that turned out to be wrong. When the backlog was corrected, the increase in deaths for October to December, with most of it in the final two months, was 4,275.

That one person — Karthik Kondapally, an epidemiology investigator — got overwhelmed by the number of COVID-19 deaths and couldn’t keep up, according to the ODH.

Again, why was one person in charge of this?

McCloud said it wasn’t an issue before the COVID-19 death numbers greatly increased, and that’s how it was always done.

“It was during the surge that apparently it became too much to sort through those” and Kondapally “did not raise the red flag.”

That’s a weak excuse.

Kondapally resigned last week and Sietske de Fijter, chief of the department’s Bureau of Infectious Diseases, was reassigned to a different job.

The ODH has experienced other COVID-19 reporting problems, such as incomplete case data in the fall. It’s definitely overwhelming, but the pandemic is the department’s most pressing matter.

It should be noted that Ohio isn’t the only state with issues. Pennsylvania is facing a temporary shortage of second doses of the Moderna vaccine because providers used them as first doses, meaning more than 100,000 people had to be rescheduled. The Associated Press described it as “setting back (Pennsylvania’s) already stumbling vaccine rollout.”

DeWine was asked several times about the Ohio COVID-19 fatality undercount and largely deferred to McCloud, who said: “We are starting one of our standard administrative review (processes) as to how the issue arose and why it was not flagged sooner, and I’m really not able to comment on anything more until that’s completed.”

DeWine responded to a question about if the increase was detected earlier would it have changed anything with restrictions. He said: “No, we know we were seeing a spike. We saw a spike,” and it wasn’t caught “because the surge was occurring.”

Michael McGovern, managing director of ProgressOhio, a liberal organization, said: “The confusing vaccine rollout fiasco and losing track of thousands of deaths are part of the same pattern: the DeWine administration’s failure to help Ohioans navigate the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic is overwhelming for many Ohioans. We need consistent, honest communication from the state, and we just aren’t getting it from Gov. DeWine.”

Skolnick covers politics for the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator.



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