WATERTOWN — The daily death toll from COVID-19 complications has been rising steadily across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties since December, raising the question of how virus-related deaths are reported across the region.
As of Friday, the three-county region has reported a total of 174 deaths from COVID-19 — 75 in Jefferson County, 25 in Lewis County and 74 in St. Lawrence County.
Jefferson County on Thursday reported six virus-related deaths — its highest single-day death report since the start of the pandemic. But the concern was raised that not all of those people died from the virus that day as was assumed. It’s been unclear since the start of the pandemic when the virus-related deaths reported actually occurred, but it’s been assumed the death occurred either the day it was reported, or the day prior.
Stephen A. Jennings, public health planner with the Jefferson County Public Health Service, confirmed Friday that three of the virus deaths the county reported Thursday actually occurred Jan. 30, and the other three deaths occurred Wednesday.
Why are deaths that occurred days prior being reported after the fact? This is a question some have asked following a controversial report from the state attorney general’s office that the state Department of Health underreported COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as half. The DOH has since released updated figures.
Mr. Jennings said this is because facilities — nursing homes, assisted living homes and hospitals — are not required to report virus-related deaths to the county. Some facilities voluntarily report virus deaths, while others do not, he said.
“Without the facility reports, we have to wait until the death certificates are sent in from the municipalities to the Jefferson County Public Health Service,” he said in an email Friday.
He also noted that some people have died from the virus at home, so the health service doesn’t know about those cases until the death certificates arrive. Most municipalities batch their death certificates, he said, and typically send those to the health service at the end of a month. Once those certificates are received, they’re all reviewed for the cause of death, he added.
This is what revealed that none of the deaths reported in the county Thursday occurred that day. The reason the health service knew sooner rather than later about the three deaths that occurred Wednesday is because those deaths were voluntarily reported from facilities, Mr. Jennings said.
This method of reporting virus-related deaths appears to be different from county to county.
The St. Lawrence County Public Health Department confirmed Friday that it does not wait for facilities to report virus deaths to the department, nor are facilities required to, as is the case in Jefferson County.
Instead, virus deaths in St. Lawrence County are reported to the public once they’re reported to the state. This has resulted in an unclear picture as to when the deaths actually occurred versus when they’re officially reported by the county.
Lewis County Public Health did not return request for comment Friday, so it remains unclear how exactly virus-related deaths are reported in the county.