25 Investigates: Tracking COVID-19 deaths improving in Mass., but inconsistencies remain

25 Investigates: Tracking COVID-19 deaths improving in Mass., but inconsistencies remain

BOSTON — 25 Investigates has been tracking the COVID-19-related deaths in Massachusetts since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Last month, we discovered the Commonwealth appeared to be undercounting hundreds of COVID-related deaths.

Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh has been going through the latest numbers for May and uncovered an opposite trend as we work to understand the real scope of COVID-19.

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The month of May brought another significant spike in deaths to Massachusetts. According to the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, May typically sees, on average, 4,857 deaths. In 2020, May saw 7,734 deaths.

"It is visibly noticeable on our charts, that something huge went on here," said Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency room physician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Dr. Faust has been tracking what's called excess mortality.

"Excess mortality, which is the number of more deaths than usual, really gives you a sense of how unusual the situation is," he said.

In May in Massachusetts, there were 2,877 more deaths – or excess deaths – than the previous five Mays, according to state data.

"For as long, as far back as we look in American history, we have very rarely seen anything like this,” Dr. Faust said.

The total number of deaths remains historic, but the state's accounting of them is varying month to month since the pandemic began, based on an analysis by 25 Investigates.

When we examined state data, we found deaths in April almost doubled from an average of 4,966 to 9,681 this year. Of the 4,710 excess deaths, only 3,473 were attributed to COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. That revealed a possible undercount of 1,237 possible COVID deaths.

  • Average April deaths: 4,965
  • April 2020 deaths: 9,681

Experts we spoke with blamed lack of testing. But the numbers tell a different story in May. The COVID-19 deaths surpassed excess deaths by more than 400.

  • Average May deaths: 4,857
  • May 2020 deaths: 7,734

Dr. Faust said that could be a product of some over-counting.

“We expect a certain number of people to die every day. And, if they happen to have contracted COVID, at the last minute, that didn’t necessarily mean that’s why they died. And yet COVID is getting the blame, that will be an overcount.”

Travis Dixon says his father Dennis did not die of COVID-19, despite what it says on his death certificate. Travis showed 25 Investigates his dad's negative test results.

“The first line item on [his death certificate] for suspected death is COVID-19,” Dixon said. “And then, and like I said, no one mentioned it, we had no idea. It was a total shock to us."

Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient Dennis Dixon was nearly paralyzed in a bicycle accident 15 years ago. His son says his dad suffered for years and was in declining health this year.

"He was sick even before they tested and before Corona was going on,” Travis said. We kind of knew he might not make it through the year as it was with ongoing issues he had and organ failure issues."

Travis said his dad tested negative for coronavirus on April 19 when his entire Natick nursing home was tested. He died six days later.

Dr. Faust could not speak directly to Dixon’s case, but told 25 Investigates ‘over-counting’ is likely just a small part why May’s death data essentially flipped.

He says there was much more testing in May and potentially fewer people dying for other, non-COVID reasons.

"It looks like COVID is outpacing the excess deaths, but in reality, it's only because other causes of death have actually gone down during this time, which makes some sense," Faust said. He says the state lockdown meant fewer construction accidents, fewer people on the roads involved in crashes and generally less stress for many working from home.

"We know that things like the shutdown could actually, in the short term, not the long term, but in the short term, decrease deaths from a bunch of other causes."

Furthermore, Dr. Faust said, the numbers matter. Studying excess mortality is an important part of understanding the scope of the coronavirus pandemic. And, he said, they could be the key to truly unlocking a return to normal.

"It gives me optimism when I see those numbers get back to normal," he said.

Dr. Faust added that he will continue to track this is data until there’s a vaccine.