Massachusetts is dropping its COVID-19 death count by 3,700 people after adopting new criteria for determining deaths caused by the virus.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said Thursday that as of March 14, the state will update its criteria “to align with guidance from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.”
Under the old criteria, the COVID-19 death definition applies not only to people who have COVID-19 listed as a cause of death on their death certificate, but also people who had a COVID-19 diagnosis within 60 days of their death but do not have COVID-19 listed as a cause of death on their death certificate.
Massachusetts’s new definition of a COVID-19 death tightens that diagnosis timeline from 60 days to just 30 days.
The new criteria will retroactively affect all deaths in Massachusetts since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
The previous approach to counting COVID-19 deaths was “overly broad and led to an overcounting of COVID-19-associated deaths,” the Department of Public Health said in a statement.
“As a result, 4,081 deaths in Massachusetts that were previously counted as associated with COVID will be removed,” the health department said.
The net drop is only about 3,700, however, because about 400 new deaths that were not previously counted as COVID-19 deaths will be added to the total. Those new COVID-19 deaths were identified by manually matching death certificates with medical records.
“We are adopting the new definition because we support the need to standardize the way COVID-19-associated deaths are counted,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown.
Before the new criteria, “states did not have a nationally recommended definition for COVID-19 deaths and, as such, have been using a variety of processes and definitions to count their deaths,” Brown explained.
“In Massachusetts, our definition has consistently been broader than most other states. After a deep dive into our data and reviewing thousands of death certificates we recognize that this updated definition gives us a truer picture of mortality associated with COVID-19,” she said.
Critics have previously expressed skepticism about official COVID-19 death tallies, emphasizing that there is a difference between someone dying from COVID-19 and someone who died with COVID-19 but had other health issues that primarily caused their death.
Across the globe, the death toll has topped 6 million, with more than 900,000 deaths attributed to the virus in the U.S., according to official numbers.
“Deaths are, to a degree, imprecise,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville told Medical News Today last month, speaking about this issue.
“A physician must make a judgment of cause of death,” he added.
Early in the pandemic, government officials said that people who died with the virus would be counted as COVID-19 deaths.
“If someone dies with COVID-19, we are counting that as a COVID-19 death,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said in April 2020.