COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Health Department should begin releasing data on coronavirus deaths in two categories: those whose death was caused by COVID-19, and those who died of other causes but also had a positive test, the state auditor said in a report.
Not making the distinction “may lead to confusion for the layperson as to whether an individual died by COVID-19 or died with COVID-19,” said the report from office of Republican state Auditor Keith Faber.
While the state follows federal guidelines for coronavirus death reporting, some medical professionals may fill out death certificates for people who died of other causes while also testing positive for COVID 19, according to the report.
“Although inefficiencies, opportunities to improve transparency, and methods to collect better data certainly exist, the Ohio Department of Health has generally provided the public with correct information and managed Ohio’s response to the pandemic commendably,” Faber said Tuesday.
Ohio has reported more than 18,300 coronavirus deaths to date. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in Ohio did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 12.71 on March 8 to 7 on March 22, according to an Associated Press analysis of data provided by The COVID Tracking Project.
In February, the state said it had discovered thousands of unreported coronavirus deaths and announced a restructuring of its infectious disease division.
An outdated reporting system led to the undercount of more than 4,200 COVID-19 deaths in Ohio will now be retired, the Health Department said.
The auditor’s death reporting recommendations came the same day an Ohio court that handles public records disputes ruled that Health Department certificates listing COVID-19 as the cause of death are a public record that must be released.
The Ohio Court of Claims decision rejected arguments by the state that it doesn’t maintain the information as a “unique report” and isn’t required to provide it.
The Health Department claimed, “improbably during a COVID-19 pandemic,” that it isn’t programmed to release the information in that form, even though it has produced similar reports, Court of Claims special master Jeffrey Clark said Tuesday.
It doesn’t matter that the state “does not create the requested report for what it considers ‘normal’ agency purposes,” Clark said. “Responding to public records requests is a mandated ‘normal’ function of every public office.”
The ruling followed a complaint filed last year by Rosanna Miller, of Amanda in southeastern Ohio, who asked in April for a list of all deaths coded for COVID-19, and including people’s names, ages, county where the death occurred and whether an autopsy was performed.
The state initially said it could provide the data, then declined in the fall when Miller repeated her request.
In November, the state argued it was being asked to create a new record, and that Miller was asking for protected information by asking for names.
“Though some information on a death record may be public, that does not mean that all the information on the record is public,” the state argued.
The special master decision noted that Miller had previously obtained other databases of death records with individuals’ names. She could also obtain the information from local health departments at great expense and effort, just to duplicate what the state “easily provides from a database,” Clark said.
Miller, 70, retired from the computer and medical fields, says she can’t wear a mask because of breathing issues, and has been frustrated because it has prohibited her from receiving medical treatment.
Miller believes harm from pandemic health orders has outweighed the number of COVID-19 deaths, but she isn’t assuming whether the data will show state coronavirus deaths higher or lower than what’s been reported.
“What’s wrong with us seeing the data? What’s wrong with the people seeing it?” she said. “There just needs to be some checks and balances on this.”
On Thursday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said coronavirus cases have plateaued as he encouraged continued mask wearing, social distancing and vaccinations. The state expects more than 570,000 vaccine doses next week.
The Republican governor has said remaining statewide health orders — including a mask mandate — will be lifted once the state reaches 50 cases per 100,000 people for two weeks.
But while that number dropped as low as 143.8 cases per 100,000 people as of March 17, it rose slightly this week to 146.9 cases.
“We just have to continue to work on this,” DeWine said. “It’s the defense wearing the mask, and it’s the offense of vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.”