‘We're Not Doing That Well': Deaths From Coronavirus May Be Underreported

Pennsylvania saw a large single-day jump in deaths, due to a new "probable" classification that other agencies are also considering.

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Pennsylvania's total deaths from Covid-19 jumped 20% on Tuesday, with 360 new fatalities reported.

The large increase on top of the more than 1,200 deaths already reported during the last five weeks of the coronavirus pandemic was explained in part due to new, broader definitions. The word "probable" is now being applied to some deaths in addition to the previous "confirmed" tally.

"A confirmed case is a person who has tested positive for Covid-19. A probable case is a person who has symptoms of Covid-19 and was a close contact and was otherwise linked to a confirmed case," state Health Secretary Rachel Levine said at her daily press briefing. "We will now be reporting probable deaths of Covid-19 in addition to confirmed deaths."

The expanded reporting may take hold at more local levels, which could provide another jump in deaths. In Montgomery County, outside Philadelphia, officials are also working toward developing two lists -- one for cases confirmed by tests and one of people whose symptoms and causes of death suggest they are probably linked to Covid-19.

"We think it is very important to remain consistent in reporting," said County Commissioners Chair Dr. Valerie Arkoosh.

The adjustments come as The New York Times reported Tuesday that an analysis of deaths in several countries, including the United States, suggests Covid-19's role in fatalities could be underreported.

Dr. Thomas Fekete, an infectious disease expert and chair of medicine at Temple University's School of Medicine, told NBC10 in an interview Monday that reported deaths by government agencies may not be telling the whole story of the virus's deadly toll.

"We're not doing that well," Fekete said of the national death total, which passed 40,000 this week. He added: "That number might be 80,000. And we're not done yet."

Federal officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, have said the stay-at-home orders and the stringent social distancing that many American have endured for more than a month has helped keep the death toll down.

And officials who appear daily to give updates on the Covid-19's spread, like Pennsylvania's Levine, expressed their belief that the deaths so far reported are accurate.

"I don’t think they’re being underreported," Levine said. "We’re very confident in our data."

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said it remains unclear if coronavirus-related deaths may be masked by other more usual causes.

"It is possible that people are dying that don’t have a diagnosis of coronavirus," Farley said. "Let’s say someone has bad heart disease, and they die. And someone may think, well, they have heart disease and that’s what killed them."

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