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Unreported COVID-19 Deaths Lead To Ohio Health Department Restructuring

A nurse pulls a ventilator into an exam room where a patient with COVID-19 went into cardiac arrest at St. Joseph's Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y on April 20, 2020.
John Minchillo
A nurse pulls a ventilator into an exam room where a patient with COVID-19 went into cardiac arrest at St. Joseph's Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y on April 20, 2020.

Ohio's Health Department is restructuring its infectious disease division and launching an investigation following the discovery of as many as 4,000 unreported COVID-19 deaths. One epidemiologist has resigned and several other staffers have been reassigned.

The Health Department said that “process issues affecting the reconciliation and reporting of these deaths” began in October, with most occurring in November and December.

Ohio Department of Health director Stephanie McCloud says one employee may have become overwhelmed with reconciling data from different sources late last year, but that employee didn’t let supervisors know how far behind they were. McCloud said the problem came to light Tuesday evening when a department supervisor discovered it.

“We are starting what is our standard administrative review process, as to how the issue arose and why it was not flagged sooner,” McCloud said.

McCloud said some changes are being made immediately. Epidemiology investigator Karthik Kondapally, who was placed on administrative leave Thursday, resigned from the department on Friday morning. Sietske de Fijter, former chief of the Bureau of Infectious Diseases, has been reassigned to a position in the Bureau of Health Improvement and Wellness.

The new chief of the Bureau of Infectious Diseases is Kristen Dickerson, who previously served as the manager for statewide health, wellness, and special programs at the Bureau of Workers' Compensation. She has a Ph.D. in public health with a concentration in epidemiology, has a Master's in public health, an undegraduate degree in microbiology, and is licensed as a registered nurse.

Adding the data will inflate daily reported death counts for two or three days, but the appropriate date of deaths will be reflected on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, the health department said. 

The announcement of the underreported deaths came Wednesday night and followed an appearance by McCloud before the House Finance Committee, during which she said nothing of the discrepancy.

“While I understand the director has only been on the job less than two months, someone needs to answer for this failure,” said state Rep. Erica Crawley, a Columbus Democrat who was among lawmakers questioning McCloud on Wednesday.

Crawley said she was concerned no mention was made of the reporting error at the time. Taylor Jach, spokesperson for Republican House Speaker Bob Cupp, said House members have a number of questions on this issue.

Thursday’s daily coronavirus death toll showed more than 720 deaths, of which 650 come from previously unreported deaths, Gov. Mike DeWine said.

“We hope, we believe, that is going to put us back from the track where we actually are,” DeWine said.

On Friday, about 2,500 previously unreported deaths were added to the state's numbers, bringing the total number of coronavirus deaths to 15,136.

Republican state Auditor Keith Faber has been auditing Health Department coronavirus death data since September. A spokesperson said the error occurred when health officials were reconciling the state's death certificate database with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's infectious diseases database.

“We were never able to make that reconciliation ourselves to come up with those figures,” said Matt Eiselstein, Faber's communications director. The final audit is expected next month.

It’s not uncommon for health officials to update coronavirus death totals based on data analysis, though not to the extent of Ohio’s massive adjustment.

Earlier this month, Yellowstone County in Montana — the state’s most populous county — added 47 deaths to the 179 that had been reported as of Feb. 2. Missouri regularly updates its figures, adding 287 previously unreported deaths on Thursday, including some as far back as July and May.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.