CJ: NC’s Obsolete Death Reporting System Makes It Rip Van Winkle of COVID Data

RALEIGH – We just don’t know.

While states around the country continually track and update COVID-19-related deaths in near real time (or any deaths for that matter), North Carolina cannot. That’s because we have a paper system for recording Death Certificates, multiplied by 100 county health departments and whatever recording delays they may have.

So when it comes to the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19, we just don’t know with any confidence, what that number really is. It’s beyond the wacky way in which COVID deaths are qualified. We’ve heard the asinine anecdotes; motorcycle crash victims who test positive are counted in the COVID death toll.

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But in North Carolina, even that motorcycle crash death — however it’s classified — wouldn’t make into a recorded system for weeks or months. Months!!

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Julie Havlak of Carolina Journal takes us through the perils of having a ‘dead tree’ system, and the many, many knock on effects of being the Rip Van Winkle state when it comes to modern reporting systems:

“As death rates spike across the nation, no one knows how many North Carolinians have died since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. 

New York City’s deaths from all causes soared 663% for the week ending April 11, while deaths rose 41% across the U.S. That’s compared to the same period in past years. 

North Carolina doesn’t have that data. 

It can take months to process death certificates here. We are one of three states still using a “dead tree” system. The General Assembly in 2015 paid for an electronic system to bring the state up to standard. But North Carolina lagged behind most states by several years in adopting an electronic system. It won’t operate statewide until winter 2021.

Without that data, experts can’t count COVID-19 deaths in North Carolina. Nor can they track the indirect effects of the pandemic — how many people died because of the shutdowns, delays in health care, and the damaged economy, said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health. Policymakers lack the information to consider safely reopening schools and businesses and letting social activities resume.

The absence of data conceals both uncounted COVID-19 deaths and deaths caused by the fallout of the lockdowns. Hospitals canceled elective surgeries, and fear kept patients from seeking care. 

Academics, journalists, and policy groups have cut the state out of studies on deaths. 

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