Health official explains steep discrepancy in number of COVID-19 fatalities reported by state and county

HOUSTON – A recent change in the way the state is counting COVID-19 deaths may explain why the total number of deaths on Harris County’s coronavirus dashboard doesn’t line up with the state’s dashboard, according to Houston health officials.

As of Tuesday night, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services listed 1,127 deaths in Harris County but the county dashboard only lists 670 deaths — which also includes numbers from the city of Houston.

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“I suspect that the numbers are different because the state just recently sent out notice that they’re changing the way deaths are going to be counted,” said Dr. David Persse, Houston Health Authority.

Monday, the state said it is now identifying COVID-19 fatalities based on the cause of death listed on the death certificate, a change that’s expected to bring faster, more consistent reporting.

Persse said local officials have been taking the extra step of making sure the patient had also tested positive before reporting the death. That process takes time, but he said it may not be necessary anymore.

“At some point, the clinicians get very good at recognizing it clinically and accurately diagnosing someone with the disease,” Persse said.

Because of that, Persse said he’s not worried that the number of deaths reported might be wrong.

The city plans to switch to the state’s method of reporting deaths in the next few days, Persse said.

As of Tuesday night, the county planned to continue the method of checking the death certificate against the lab result before reporting the death, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Health Department said.