BOSTON — Massachusetts has reported 5,315 deaths due to the coronavirus as of May 13, 2020.
Behind each of those deaths is someone's personal story of loss.
25 Investigates compared years of data and found the death toll in the Commonwealth could be much higher than reported. We found 1,400 uncounted deaths that could be linked to the coronavirus.
While researching this story, our team didn’t have to go far to find someone who suffered an uncertain loss in the time of COVID-19.
Our own Bob Ward and his wife, Gayle, lost a family member suddenly, Gayle’s brother, Walter.
They knew Walter had been exposed to the virus. But they’ll never know if he died of it.
Gayle Ward had to say goodbye to her beloved brother on March 24.
"My brother was Walter Mattison and he was a disabled Army Vet. He served with the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper, and he was my rock,” Gayle said.
The 64-year-old was found dead in his apartment by police conducting a welfare check.
Walter lived with their 95-year-old mother, who went into the hospital and was being treated for COVID-19. When Walter suddenly died, days after his mother was hospitalized, his family wanted him tested for the virus as well.
“They not only wouldn’t, they refused. We begged them,” said Gayle. “The medical examiner, we begged them to test him because my mother had tested positive and they wouldn’t do it.”
She said the explanation was simple and simply frustrating.
“Oh, we don’t have enough tests,” Gayle said.
Walter Mattison’s fate could be one of hundreds of unaccounted for deaths in Massachusetts potentially linked to COVID-19.
25 Investigates examined data provided by the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, which tracks deaths in the state.
We compared monthly death totals going back to 2015 with COVID-19 data reported by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Between 2015 and 2019, Massachusetts saw an average 5,296 deaths in the month of March.
In March 2020, the number spiked to 5,578.
That’s an increase of 282 deaths.
But according to DPH’s numbers, only 89 are attributed to COVID-19.
That leaves 193 deaths, which experts say could be the result of COVID-19.
Average Deaths for March 2015-2019: 5,296
Total Deaths March 2020: 5,578
Excess Deaths: 282
COVID-19 Deaths: 89
Potential Additional COVID-19 Deaths: 193
We showed our research to Thomas Tsai, MD, MPH, a public health policy expert at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“These are not hypothetical figures on a table or a spreadsheet. These are real lives,” said Tsai. “Our policy response really needs to be able to match, you know, the severity of the pandemic that we’re seeing.”
The numbers in April are more drastic.
Deaths almost doubled from an average of 4,966 to 9,681 this year.
Of the 4,710 excess deaths, only 3,473 are from COVID-19.
1,237 excess deaths in the month of April are not attributed to the coronavirus.
Average Deaths for April: 2015-2019: 4,966
Total Deaths April 2020: 9,681
Excess Deaths: 4,710
COVID-19 Deaths: 3,473
Potential Additional COVID-19 Deaths: 1,237
“There’s clear consensus that many of these unaccounted for deaths, you know, some of these deaths at home, or in other facilities before they could have been tested, are likely due to COVID-19 itself,” said Tsai.
Tsai says the numbers highlight the personal toll for so many Massachusetts families like Gayle Ward’s, and the lack of a national testing strategy at the onset of the pandemic.
And, he says, the coronavirus likely has had another consequence. "That because of the fear of the pandemic, because of the fear of catching the coronavirus, many individuals are staying at home instead of seeking care for non-COVID medical issues,” which, Tsai says could also account for some of the excess deaths.
Tsai says the numbers are critically important not to inspire fear, but motivate response, especially as we move to reopen the economy.
"So we need to know the truth, prevalence, the true severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, not just for information, but it helps us to prepare for the next wave of COVID-19 in the winter, but also prepare for future pandemics."
And, give families the answers they deserve.
"How do you expect to give people accurate numbers? If you’re not testing people who die and it’s a suspected or at least a possibility that it’s COVID related? You’re not getting out accurate information if you if you’re not testing people who should be tested,” said Gayle.
Thankfully, Gayle’s mother has survived the virus.
25 Investigates has a breakdown of the numbers in each county.
Tsai says this is another reason to continue expanding testing in the state and country. He says the focus should remain on identifying where infections are, and isolating infected people and saving lives.
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