PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Nearly one in five COVID-19 patients classified by the state of Rhode Island as getting “discharged” from the hospital actually died there, Target 12 has learned.

In response to questions from Target 12, the R.I. Health Department revealed Tuesday night that out of a total of 466 coronavirus patients currently listed as discharged, 86 died at the hospital — an outcome that would seem to conflict with a layman’s understanding of a hospital discharge.

• Follow-Up: RI Health Dept. cuts total COVID-19 discharges to 391

Earlier in the day, Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott had been unable to explain why the agency’s data showed every Rhode Island coronavirus patient who had been hospitalized at some point was currently either still in the hospital or discharged, suggesting none had died.

“There have been a few deaths that have occurred in hospitals, unfortunately, but the number is small,” Alexander-Scott said during the governor’s daily briefing.

Asked on a follow-up conference call with reporters whether the department was classifying deaths as discharges, Alexander-Scott said, “We’ll nail that down. I have it in front of me but I want to make sure I’m saying the right numbers to you.”

The data released Tuesday night indicates hospital deaths currently make up 36% of Rhode Island’s 239 COVID-19 fatalities. A majority of the 239 fatalities were nursing home residents, while other individuals have died at home, according to Alexander-Scott.

Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken attributed the classification to the way hospitals share the data, which he said is how the department pulls the numbers reported to the public.

“Hospitals have discharge codes based on ‘discharge disposition,'” Wendelken explained in an email. “The different dispositions indicate the person’s status or next destination. There is a code for transfer to home, transfer to hospice, leaving AMA (against medical advice), etc. One discharge disposition code is for people who have passed away.”

“Of course, I totally see how that is unclear,” he added. “We are going to adjust so the ‘discharge’ category online better aligns with the way people normally understand the word.”

Subtracting the 86 deaths from the total number reported by the Health Department leaves 380 Rhode Island coronavirus patients who were alive and discharged from the hospital since the outbreak began.

However, Wendelken cautioned that at least some of those 380 patients went on to die at home after being discharged.

Ted Nesi ( is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook