It was a staggering number that caused the number of New Jersey coronavirus deaths to rise in an instant by almost 15%.
On Thursday, Governor Phil Murphy announced that 1,854 probable deaths from COVID-19 would be added to the state’s official count, to account for the people who likely died of the disease without being examined while the outbreak was unleashed.
“We reported this out of nothing more than a solemn sense of duty,” Murphy said in announcing the new numbers, causing the death count to rise to 14,872. “For many families, we hope that these determinations provide a sense of closure and ultimately of awareness.”
Experts have long said that New Jersey’s tabulations, which were previously limited to only laboratory-confirmed coronavirus cases, were underestimated. The data suggests that the new toll is closer to reality.
Since May, NJ Advance Media has been tracking mortality across the state by comparing overall deaths this year, regardless of cause, with what would be expected based on averages from previous years. Those statistics consistently showed that the state’s count was too low and hundreds of deaths were lost that were likely caused by the pandemic.
Keep in mind the state’s new likely death toll, and that gap seems to be closing. From March to the end of May, New Jersey had 14,893 more deaths than were typical during the same period from 2015 to 2019, pretty much the same as the state’s new count.
So far in June, mortality figures have not shown an increase in excess deaths, although it is unclear whether that will change, given the delays in the statistics report.
There are many reasons why coronavirus deaths were not reported, according to forensic doctors and epidemiologists. As the outbreak shook the state, New Jersey lacked the resources to test everyone for the virus, and some people were put to rest that they may have died without the disease being detected. In some deaths, doctors may have attributed the cause to more generic conditions, such as heart disease. In other cases, death certificates were inconsistently completed.
In announcing probable deaths, Pennsylvania follows the example of some other states. On Wednesday, Delaware added 67 COVID-19 deaths to its number of more than 500 lives lost after a review of death records by state health officials. Others, including Michigan and Colorado, also include probable deaths as part of their accounts.
It makes sense that states document the impact of the disease as completely as possible, said Dr. Victor Weedn, former head of the New Jersey medical examiner’s office who is now a professor at George Washington University. Although the effort can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, it provides important insight into the impact of a crisis, he said.
“So we have a better understanding, not just for continued efforts but for the next (time),” Weedn said.
Reaching the state’s likely death toll, Murphy said health officials combed thousands of death certificates to identify residents who could “very reliably” say they died of coronavirus. The new figures included people who died with symptoms during known infections, particularly in state-affected nursing homes, authorities said.
“That was particularly common early in the outbreak when testing was difficult, and it was often impossible to assess everyone,” said Dr. Ed Lifshitz, New Jersey chief of communicable diseases.
Lifshitz said the public deserves a deserved interest in knowing those numbers. The state plans to announce probable COVID-19 deaths once a week, but Lifshitz said it does not anticipate that they will increase dramatically with this week’s announcement, which it called the product of months of review.
“We do not claim that we can possibly count every person who has been affected or every person who has died,” Lifshitz said. “But we do our best to get the numbers as accurately as possible.”
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Riley Yates can be contacted at [email protected].