Massachusetts health department drops thousands from COVID-19 death count

Before, if the virus was a cause of death on the death certificate or if someone tested positive within 60 days, their death was due to COVID.

Updated: March 13, 2022 - 6:47pm

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The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) on Monday updated its criteria for defining a death due to COVID-19 which will reduce the state's death tally by thousands.

Massachusetts' overall COVID-19 death count will decrease by 3,700 on March 14, the DPH announced last week.

“We are adopting the new definition because we support the need to standardize the way COVID-19-associated deaths are counted,” DPH State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown said in a press release.

Under the old guidance, if the virus appeared as a cause of death on someone's death certificate or if they tested positive for the virus within 60 days of death, their death counted in the statewide tally.

The updated guidance, which the DPH says aligns with recommendations from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, will shorten the window of a positive diagnosis from 60 days to 30 days to count as a COVID death. 

The new definition applies to all deaths starting in March 2020, which means 4,081 Massachusetts deaths previously considered COVID-related will disappear from the state's toll.

However, about 400 deaths not previously attributed to COVID-19 will be added to the count after their death certificates were manually matched to medical records. 

"The state’s overall COVID death count, therefore, will decline by 3,700," the DPH wrote.

Dr. Brown admitted that in Massachusetts "our definition has consistently been broader than most other states" for COVID-19 deaths.

"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 added.

Massachusetts has had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic with nearly 23,000 confirmed deaths, according to DPH data released Friday. By Monday, however, the number of deaths will decrease to fewer than 20,000.

Massachusetts ranks 26th for COVID-19 deaths as of Sunday, with 0.36 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents according to Becker's Hospital Review.

"It is important to understand that we cannot identify all COVID-19 deaths with 100 percent accuracy," Associate Harvard Public Health Professor Nicholas Menzies said. "The revised definition for COVID-19 deaths is a reasonable balance between sensitivity and specificity and will make it easier to compare Massachusetts death data with data from other jurisdictions."

Massachusetts has enacted strict COVID-19 mitigation measures throughout the pandemic. About 200 UMass Memorial Health employees were fired in December for missing the state's COVID vaccine deadline.

Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker mobilized 500 members of the National Guard to assist in state hospitals earlier this year when COVID-19 cases surged.