Change in how DHHS reports COVID deaths gives clearer view of spikes, trends


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A change in the way the state Department of Health and Human Resources is disclosing coronavirus-related deaths gives a clearer view of precisely when spikes happen.

Among the changes the DHHS made when it revamped its online data dashboard last week, it now breaks down deaths by the date on which they occur.

Previously, the agency updated its cumulative death total daily without specifying when deaths happened.

For example, an increase of 10 deaths in one day in the overall total did not necessarily mean 10 people died on the previous day; because of lags in reporting across the state, those increases often reflected deaths that actually took place days earlier.

“With where we are in the pandemic, it’s really critical to look at trends and not just total numbers,” Elyse Powell, an epidemiologist with the NCDHHS, told CBS 17 News on Friday.

“Not just with deaths, but with all of our numbers. You don’t want to just look at the total. You also want to look at, is it going up? Is it going down? Are we at a peak? Are we declining? So one of the shifts with our new dashboard is really to include both our total numbers alongside better visualizations of our trends over time.”

It turns out, one such spike happened this week — at least 23 people died of COVID-19 on Monday, making it the third-deadliest single day of the pandemic.

It’s possible that spike could reflect the move to Phase One of the reopening process and the relaxation of some social distancing guidelines that accompanied that move.

That move took effect May 8. The virus’ incubation period averages 4-5 days — but it can take up to two weeks before an infected person shows symptoms — and it takes a variable amount of time for that person’s condition to worsen.

There doesn’t appear to be a connection to be made to the deadliest day of the pandemic so far — April 16, when 26 people died.

Monday was the eighth day with at least 20 deaths, and the first since 24 people died on May 10.

“It’s really critically important not just to understand how many people have died here in North Carolina, but also are we seeing the number of people dying each day accelerating?” Powell said. “Are they decelerating? Is the trend going up or down? And that, in combination with many other numbers, gives us a better picture of how this pandemic is progressing here in North Carolina.”

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