DPH updates definition for COVID deaths in Mass. resulting in a huge drop in state’s death count

BOSTON — State health officials in Massachusetts are changing how they define deaths from COVID-19 and based on that new definition the state’s overall COVID death count will drop by about 3,700 people.

The state says that as of March 14, the Department of Public Health will update its criteria “to align with guidance from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists,” according to a statement from DPH.

“Currently, the COVID death definition includes anyone who has COVID listed as a cause of death on their death certificate and any individual who has had a COVID-19 diagnosis within 60 days but does not have COVID listed as a cause of death on their death certificate,” according to DPH.

The updated definition reduces the timeline from 60 days to 30 days for individuals without a COVID diagnosis on their death certificate.

DPH says it has applied this new definition - retroactively - to the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and corrects an approach that was “overly broad and led to an overcounting of COVID-19-associated deaths,” according to DPH.

“As a result, 4,081 deaths in Massachusetts that were previously counted as associated with COVID will be removed,” says DPH.

In addition, approximately 400 deaths not previously counted but identified through a manual process of matching death certificates with medical records will be added to the COVID-19 death count.

The net result is a drop of about 3,700 people.

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

“Prior to the CSTE definition, states did not have a nationally recommended definition for COVID-19 deaths and, as such, have been using a variety of processes and definitions to count their deaths,” said Dr. Brown. “In Massachusetts, our definition has consistently been broader than most other states. 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.”

The new definition will be reflected in the COVID-19 interactive dashboard data on Monday, March 14.

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