The Galveston County Health District is seeking answers from the Texas Department of State Health Services about why the state’s reported COVID-19 death toll is 25 percent higher than what local officials are reporting.
As of Thursday afternoon, the health district reported 73 COVID-19-related deaths in Galveston County. At the same time, the state health department reported 92 deaths.
The health district doesn’t intend to increase its death reports to correspond with the state’s numbers, health district spokeswoman Ashley Tompkins said.
“The state is reporting a higher number of COVID-19 fatalities in Galveston County,” Tompkins said. “This could be because the person passed away in a different county, ZIP codes are crossing jurisdictions or the county recorded on the death record.
“The health district’s vitals department files death certificates for those who pass away in Galveston County,” she said. “The health district would have to be notified if a Galveston County resident passed away in a different county.”
The difference in numbers appeared after the state health department announced it had begun counting COVID-19 fatalities by identifying them through the cause of death listings on death certificates.
Previously, the state health department had been counting fatalities as they were reported by local health departments, like the health district.
The state’s change led to an increase of more than 600 deaths in Texas’ total death toll. As of Thursday morning, 6,190 people had died of coronavirus-related causes in Texas, according to the state health department.
In making the change to counting by death certificates, the health department said its reporting of fatalities would be faster and include more comprehensive demographic data. It also would ensure consistent reporting across the state and give a clearer picture about the day people died, officials said.
The change, however, created new discrepancies.
The county health district has published near-daily reports on local coronavirus cases, test results and demographic data since March. Its numbers are widely cited by news organizations, including The Daily News. The state’s numbers also are frequently cited in reports about the pandemic in Texas.
Tompkins said Wednesday she didn’t know whether the health district’s numbers would ever be adjusted to match the state’s death count.
“We don’t know what data they’re looking at,” Tompkins said.
The health district has asked the state health department for an explanation about the differences, Tompkins said.
“The health district is working with the state to access the public health records it is using to report COVID-19 fatalities,” she said.
The Texas Department of State Health Services did not respond Thursday to a request for comment about the data.
Late Thursday, however, the department announced it was decreasing its statewide count by 225 fatalities.
When the department switched the way it reported fatalities, an automation error caused some deaths to be counted even though the death certificates did not list COVID-19 as a direct cause of death, the department said.
While state records count more COVID-19 deaths in the county than the health district’s do, both sets of data report the same trends in coronavirus deaths: There was a steep initial increase in deaths in April, attributed almost entirely to coronavirus infections in long-term care facilities, and then fatalities dropped off in May.
Deaths started rising again in late June, corresponding with the sharp increase in coronavirus cases in Galveston County and other parts of Texas.
Where the data differ, for now, is how large the death toll was in more recent months. According to the health district’s data, 13 Galveston County residents died from coronavirus-related causes in June and 23 people have died so far in July.
According to the state health department, 21 people died in June and 33 people have died in July.
No new local deaths were reported by the health district or the state health department Thursday.