Health

Kentucky has underreported the true toll of the pandemic by at least 1,389 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A review of Kentucky death certificates has found at least 6,121 Kentuckians have died of COVID-19 as of March 4, according to the CDC. At the same time, Kentucky has reported only 4,732 deaths.  

Gov. Andy Beshear has touted the state’s low death toll often amid pandemic restrictions, but the state’s count of COVID-19 deaths remains incomplete. The Cabinet For Health and Family Services did not respond to a request for comment on the number of COVID-19 deaths tallied by the CDC. But Beshear acknowledged earlier this week the state has likely undercounted deaths because at least one staffer stopped monitoring death certificates in November. 

Without the backstop, the state overlooked death certificates that listed COVID-19 as the official cause of death but went unreported to local health departments during the worst death surge of the pandemic so far.

Beshear did not say how many additional deaths he thought the state would find, only that there would be more.

“We should expect there to be additional deaths, the amount it’s too premature to say,” he said.   

But there was still a gap between the state and CDC reporting before the death surge. Prior to November, the CDC counted 431 more COVID-19 deaths in Kentucky than the state, but that gap has since more than tripled.  

A WFPL investigation last month found the state was reporting hundreds fewer deaths than local health departments were, and the state’s high death tolls in January were the result of clearing a backlog in reporting. Beshear said recently the state has caught up on death reports. Data show a big difference between the reported peak of deaths and the actual peak. 

In November and December, 1,924 Kentuckians died of COVID. But due to the state’s reporting delays, 63% fewer deaths were reported in those months.  

The state is not the only source of death data, though, because The National Center for Health Statistics has been collecting and coding COVID-19 death certificate data from Kentucky and around the country.

The CDC publishes this dataset as a “provisional” death count, but it’s only provisional in the sense that it may not include all of the most recent deaths because of lags in reporting and processing the data.

Beshear says the state is now conducting an audit similar to those done in Indiana and Ohio to match every death certificate that lists COVID-19 as a cause with every reported death. Ohio found as many as 4,000 additional COVID-19 deaths while Indiana found more than 1,500 deaths after their audits. 

Only government entities will be able to provide the death totals from death certificates because Kentucky is one of 33 states in the country with heavy open records restrictions limiting public access to death certificates, according to a Dec. 2020 report from the Journal of Civic Info.  

In the commonwealth, open records laws do not consider death certificates to be public records until 50 years after the date of death. The state will provide a list of all the persons who died in a given year, but the records do not include information about the cause of death.

A spokesperson with the Cabinet For Health and Family Services denied an interview request about the death audit. 

“Governor Beshear publicly stated yesterday a commitment to accurately counting COVID-19-related deaths of Kentuckians,” spokesperson Susan Dunlap said in an email. “He also acknowledged that prior to completion of the rigorous process that is underway, it is premature to share approximations or other information. Once audit results have been verified, the information will be presented to the public.”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.