(ABC4) — It’s safe to say that COVID-19 has made a lasting impact on Utah with 292,720 positive cases, 11,463 hospitalizations, and 1,330 deaths in the state as of Thursday morning, according to coronavirus.utah.gov.
Utah’s number of COVID-19 deaths for 2020 sits at 1,330, more than four times the amount of Utahns that passed from the flu this year, according to current statistics from the Utah Department of Health.
Between April and July 2020, COVID-19 became the third leading cause of death in the state, following heart disease and cancer.
ABC4 compared Utah’s COVID-19 fatalities in 2020 with other leading causes of death in the state. The Utah Department of Health provided the following fatality statistics to ABC4 of the number of Utahns who died from the following causes. COVID-19 fatality statistics are from coronavirus.utah.gov.
- Major Cardiovascular diseases: 5,447
- Malignant Neoplasm (Cancer): 3,391
- COVID-19: 1,330 deaths
- Non-motor vehicle accidents: 1,239
- Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases: 900
- Diabetes Mellitus: 744
- Suicide: 599
- Chronic Liver Dis. & Cirrhonsis: 311
- Pneumonia and Influenza: 279
- Motor vehicle accidents: 126
- Congenital anomalies: 123
- Conditions originating in the perinatal period & SIDS: 117
There are currently 8,942 deaths, which include deaths from COVID-19, that fall under “all other causes” and have yet to be distributed into categories. The numbers may fluctuate as these pending cases are coded by the CDC, according to the Utah Department of Health.
How is a COVID-19 Death Determined?
While COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in Utah in 2020, many ask what actually constitutes a COVID-19 death and how is that determined?
Dr. Todd Vento, Medical Director for Infectious Diseases Telehealth at Intermountain Healthcare, says determining the cause of death begins with creating a chain of events leading up to the patient’s death.
“You create a chain of events and you try to do that as accurately as possible,” Dr. Vento tells ABC4.
Vento explained the process through a hypothetical situation:
“You have a patient who stops breathing and dies. The precipitating event right before the moment they died was a respiratory arrest. But now you have to say, what caused that? The respiratory arrest came from a widespread pneumonia in their lungs. But what caused that?”
On the death certificate, there are multiple lines to record this chain of events, Vento explains. If it all leads back to a COVID-19 infection, that is then determined as the cause of death. He says it’s not random; physicians go through a process in filling out the death certificate.
“The point being, had he (the patient) not gotten the COVID-19 infection, he wasn’t going to die… the precipitating cause would’ve been the COVID-19 infection that lead to the pneumonia that lead to the respiratory arrest that lead to the death,” Vento says.
Vento says in determining COVID-19 as a cause of death, it’s usually not that complicated because COVID-19 victims often die from respiratory worsening caused by the virus.
“It’s not that complicated with COVID mostly because these individuals typically get admitted because they have a bad pneumonia and they can’t breathe because they have low oxygen because the virus gets throughout their lungs,” he says. “Then they go into this inflammatory state.”
Though that is the most typical form of death for COVID-19 patients, Vento says that COVID-19 can occasionally cause death from blood clotting and heart attacks.
Vento says he knows that people have sometimes been concerned about the accuracy of numbers for COVID-19 deaths.
“I have never ever had any factors such as money, politics, or any other factor come into my mind when filling out a death certificate. It’s pretty much walking through with my clinical judgment- what happened to this patient that started everything?” he says. “What was the first thing that started this cycle that led eventually to their death?”
Elizabeth Middleton is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Utah and Associate Director of Medical Intensive Care Unit at the University of Utah.
Middleton works with patients in the Intensive Care Unit and has seen some patients through days, weeks, or months of expiring from COVID-19, she says.
Like Vento, she agrees that the number of COVID-19 deaths is accurate. She said it can be frustrating to come across information that suggests otherwise.
“The coronavirus deaths reported by the states and CDC are as accurate as possible, and whisperings to the contrary would need substantial data to back those claims,” Middleton says. “Generally speaking, it’s frustrating as a health care provider to have misinformation that undermines the efforts that we put forth and most importantly minimizes the suffering of our patients and their families.”
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