West Virginia Officials Discover 20 More Unreported COVID-19 Deaths

Gov. Jim Justice discusses an additional 20 COVID-19 deaths in West Virginia that previously went unreported. (Photo courtesy of W.Va. Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — More than a week after health officials found 165 unreported COVID-19 deaths in West Virginia, the state announced an additional 20 such deaths Friday.

Gov. Jim Justice called for an investigation during his Friday COVID-19 briefing from the Capitol.

“Whether they’re coming from the nursing homes or the hospitals, or really it’s just a shortfall from the standpoint of our (Department of Health and Human Resources), there is no reason in the world that this could be acceptable,” Justice said. “I’m asking for a complete investigation all the way down. Flip every rock. Turn everything, until where we can absolutely without a question pinpoint exactly where the shortcomings are.”

According to DHHR, 20 more deaths were discovered by the Bureau for Public Health’s Health Statistics Center. The additional deaths were discovered by comparing data to new death certificates.

“I’m really, really upset over the fact that whatever the means may be, we’re being disrespectful to great West Virginians,” Justice said. “If it’s in my house and DHHR, it will not be a good day. If it’s with our nursing homes and hospitals and wherever it may be, we’ve got to do better.”

Hospitals, long-term care facilities and home health organizations are required to turn in a one-page death report to local health departments when the death is due to a COVID-19 infection. Health departments then report those deaths to DHHR.

Dr. Ayne Amjad, state health officer, said despite requiring those reports, there are no penalties or repercussions for facilities that don’t file timely death reports.

“We’ve talked with our Office of Inspector General,” Amjad said. “I don’t know there is so much a financial penalty or anything like that. It’s more of a process where we want to have accurate reporting for data.”

Death reports are different from death certificates, which can take weeks to complete. DHHR said last week it started reviewing death numbers every week instead of every two weeks to catch discrepancies between the daily death reports and the death certificates.

DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said they were working on a more streamlined way to report deaths directly to DHHR through an electronic process.

“We’ve got too many of these pieces of the puzzle to track and put into place,” Crouch said. “In the meantime, we’re going to change the process so that providers submit that information directly to us as soon as we finish the investigation. We want to make sure we get the information accurately, timely, and posted so everyone is aware.”

Justice first announced on March 10 that 168 deaths were not reported to DHHR. Since the announcement, two deaths were determined to be unrelated to COVID-19 and one death was a duplicate, bringing the number down to 165.

The state also reported 10 COVID-19 deaths on Friday separate from the delayed reporting of the 20 deaths, bringing Friday’s death total to 30. The total number of COVID-19 deaths since the first reported death on March 29, 2020, was 2,600 deaths as of Friday.

Justice also announced that the state is planning three fixed location vaccination clinics for West Virginia residents aged 65 and older. Those locations will be announced at a later date. Justice said the state wants to focus on clearing out vaccine waiting lists for older West Virginians, including hiring more people to work the state’s vaccine information line.

“We’ve still got a bunch of over 50, over 65, over 70 that are out there who are wanting their shots but we’re still in some way stumbling,” Justice said. “We’re going to have three areas and if you can get there, even if some way somehow you’re on a waitlist and we can’t get you called, we want you to come.”

More than 259,000 West Virginias, or 14.5 percent of state residents, have been fully vaccinated with either both doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, or the single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Of that number, nearly 145,000 residents age 65 and older have been fully vaccinated, or 395 per 1,000 people.


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