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‘Died for other reasons’: 10% of RI coronavirus deaths not caused by COVID-19

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island health officials on Wednesday revealed about 10% of the state’s 1,027 coronavirus-associated deaths happened for reasons unrelated to the disease.   

In accordance with federal standards, the R.I. Department of Health defines “coronavirus-associated deaths” as anyone who dies after recently testing positive for the disease. But the reporting method has evoked criticism from some who argue a coronavirus-positive person who dies in a car crash shouldn’t necessarily be included in the state’s death toll.

Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said Wednesday her department is now in the process of identifying those types of deaths. Initial results show about 90% of deaths are directly tied to the disease compared to about 10% that are unrelated, according to Alexander-Scott.

“What we’re seeing now is that the majority of cases are deaths that have occurred because of COVID,” she said during a weekly news conference. “But we’re continuing to develop the process for determining when it’s associated, but not necessarily caused by COVID.”

The 90% represents about 924 of the state’s 1,027 coronavirus-related deaths reported as of Wednesday, and could include people who also had other health conditions – such as pneumonia, asthma or cancer.

(Story continues below video.)

The remaining 10%, representing about 103 people, includes people who tested positive for the disease, but died for some other reason, such as a car crash.

“The other fatalities are people who had laboratory confirmed COVID-19, but the disease was not considered a contributing factor in the person’s death,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken later explained.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control does not currently require states to make the distinction.

If reported regularly, Rhode Island would become the first among its neighbors to offer the breakdown, as no similar number is provided in the daily health reports from Massachusetts and Connecticut.

But other states, such as Colorado, already make the distinction, reporting both “deaths among cases,” and “deaths due to COVID-19.”

As of Wednesday, Colorado reported 94% of its 1,899 COVID-19 associated deaths were directly related to the disease, according to the state’s website.

Alexander-Scott said offering such clarity could boost transparency and improve people’s understanding of the public health crisis.

“What our data analytics team is doing is refining the process as we go forward so we can be clearer on the causes,” she said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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