Local officials say a recent spike in Mobile County’s COVID-19 death rate is at least partly due to changes in the way the Alabama Department of Public Health is now tabulating those deaths.
According to the Mobile County Health Department, there have been 20 deaths related to COVID-19 across the county over the last three days. The jump from 18 deaths to 38 between April 20 and April 23 occurred as Mobile County became home to Alabama’s highest number of confirmed cases and deaths.
Thursday, MCHD Epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree said at least part of the recent increase in fatalities is due to a shift in the way ADPH records COVID-19 deaths to comply with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and be more in line with practices used in other states.
“This puts our death rate at 5 percent, which is almost twice as high as what we were reporting last week,” Murphree said. “We don’t believe this is because we have suddenly had a lot of new deaths over the past couple of days. This is, at least partly, due to the change in the way deaths are recorded.”
Previously, ADPH was listing two figures for COVID-19 deaths on its real-time dashboard — one for reported deaths and another for confirmed deaths. Overnight on Wednesday, that shifted to only one data point for the number of deaths according to the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System (NVSS).
The shift moved the number of confirmed deaths to closer to the number of reported deaths, which public officials have long said would happen over time anyway. According to ADPH, the criteria for COVID-19 death counts now include people who died with a positive COVID-19 laboratory test as well as “individuals whose death certificates lists, as the cause of death, COVID-19 or an equivalent.”
“As expected, the numbers moved closer to the ‘reported deaths’ count and cases increased in some counties as part of the update,” a statement from ADPH on the change said. “Most of these changes in numbers are due to cases that have died but were not previously marked as “died from COVID-19.”
The inclusion of deaths based on a decedent’s listed “cause of death” would cause the total number of fatalities attributed to COVID-19 to increase because, as Murphree stated, the “overwhelming majority” of deaths public health officials are aware of are reported by attending physicians in local hospitals.
Outside of the calculation change, Murphree also said the higher rate of deaths in Mobile County has likely been impacted by the number of “cluster outbreaks” reported in settings, like area nursing homes, long term care facilities and detention centers.
All together, Murphree said MCHD was investigating at least six known clusters in the county. While she didn’t identify those, three facilities have publicly disclosed multiple cases of COVID-19 on their own.
As Lagniappe has reported, Crowne Health Care in Mobile has confirmed that 49 residents and 45 of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak began in March. Nine of the residents and one staff member have died and several others have been hospitalized. At least 23 cases remain active in the facility, though they are isolated and no new cases have been reported since April 13.
Earlier this week, Lynwood Nursing Home, also in Mobile, confirmed that an undisclosed number of its residents and one of its employees had previously tested positive for COVID-19.
The third COVID-19 cluster that’s been publicly identified is in Mobile County Metro Jail, where despite significant efforts to ramp up screenings and reduce the jails overall population, infections have continued to spread amongst inmates and correctional officers over the past three weeks.
According to Warden Trey Oliver, as of Thursday, 17 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 along with 22 inmates. Oliver said any number of cases is concerning for administrators, but he also noted there are 260 employees and more than 1,000 inmates in the facility. He also said officers are continuing to wear personal protective equipment and sick prisoners are still being isolated in a separate area of the jail.
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