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Why is there a lag in reporting COVID-19 deaths?

HOUSTON – When the city of Houston reported its first day of double-digit deaths, KPRC 2 noticed one of the deceased dated back to May 4. This prompted us to ask why there are delays in reporting and whether delays are keeping our area from seeing an accurate picture of the number of people dying from the virus?

Does the city believe it has a good handle on the number of deaths from COVID-19?

“Yes and no. We’re getting the information in, sometimes it’s very late and there’s nothing we can do about that,” said Houston Health Authority, Dr. David Persse.

Persse explains only confirmed deaths from COVID-19 are reported, suspected deaths are not. To record a confirmed death from the virus requires a complete death certificate, and a complete death certificate has three components. One is medical, which is filled out by a doctor, hospital staff or a medical examiner’s office depending on where a person dies.

Persse said the remaining portions are filled out by the funeral home and the family. Persse said this is where slowdowns can occur.

“In some cases, it’s hard to find family members and they have to do their due diligence to find family members,” Persse said.

Then there is the grieving process.

“Family members have a hard time dealing with a death that’s unexpected; there’s just family dynamics that sometimes slow down that paperwork getting filled out,” Persse said. “The time it takes for families to get around doing the paperwork isn’t greatly changed because of COVID. People just struggle with it.”

Persse said the city is bringing in more people to try to track down all data, including deaths, relating to the pandemic as well as streamline the reporting process.

Do you think there are more deaths occurring due to COVID-19 than you’re actually reporting?

“No, I don’t think so,” Persse said.

He said hospitals and doctors are required to report these deaths within ten days and the medical examiner is reviewing every death that occurs at home. While there has been a spike in both at-home COVID-19 deaths, requiring investigation by the medical examiner’s office, and a sharp rise in homicides, Persse said the medical examiner’s office is not slow in getting information to the city and county.

Houston area hospitals using refrigerated trucks for deceased patients?

Some parts of Texas have brought in refrigerated trucks to handle an increase in the number of deaths from COVID-19. Many hospitals are not equipped to house large numbers of bodies. Persse said there was only one hospital in our area that needed this type of equipment, but it was only temporary.

“They actually didn’t have an increased load, for whatever reason the funeral directors didn’t pick up the bodies as expected so they wound up with more than they could handle,” Persse said.

KPRC 2 checked with several major hospitals in the Houston area and none have reported needing to house deceased patients in refrigerated trucks because of a lack of capacity. Memorial-Hermann has not yet responded to our request for comment.

Officials with the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, SETRAC, said they have not had a request for this type of equipment from hospitals in our region.

Officials with the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office also report no concerns about capacity in the morgue.

As of Thursday, there have been 508 deaths reported in Houston and Harris County. Statewide, the Department of State Health Services reports 3,561 deaths; 41% of which have been reported at nursing homes and assisted living centers.