Minnesota health commissioner criticizes claims of inflated COVID-19 death counts

The Minnesota Department of Health commissioner is pushing back on "misinformation" regarding how COVID-19 deaths are being recorded after two Minnesota state senators alleged the death counts are being inflated.

Sen. Scott Jensen (R - Chaska) and Sen. Jim Abeler (R - Anoka) both shared on Twitter claims that the CDC's guidance on recording COVID-19 in death certificates has led to inaccurate data. Sen. Jensen, who is also a doctor, discussed his take on a North Dakota news station.

During Thursday's briefing on COVID-19, MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she has not spoken to the senators directly, but she "would like to" in order to clear up any confusion.

"My hope in speaking to it today was to explain the process and the legitimacy of getting the information right and really to ask that people not attribute negative motives to the CDC or to our health department staff that are seeking to implement that guidance," said Malcolm.

White House Coronavirus Task Force advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci also discredited the claim, calling it a "conspiracy theory," and said there was no evidence of inflated data.

Under the CDC's updated guidance from April 2, Malcolm explained MDH's Office of Vital Records counts a confirmed COVID-19 death only when the information a medical certifier provides in a written cause of death statement explicitly mentions COVID-19. Physicians, advanced registered nurses and physician's assistants are all medical certifiers.

"There’s absolutely no policy or political motivation to increase the number of deaths that are reported, so we just ask people to try to help us clear up this confusion around the guidance and why it is we are looking to assure these death totals are as accurate as they can be," said Malcolm.

Some deaths may be recorded as "suspected" or "probable" COVID-19, she explained. If that happens, the Vitals Records staff connect with the medical certifiers to see if test results returned to confirm COVID-19. Only a medical certifier or medical examiner can make a change on the cause of death statement.

"Correcting a record to ensure accuracy is important to us and it is important to public health and to families, so that’s why we’re doing the extra investigations to try to correct the records where that is possible to do," said Malcolm.

Some cases may remain "suspected." Malcolm said those deaths will be coded in the global system as "related to," but different from the confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

"This allows us to have better clarity on the confirmed number of COVID-19 deaths versus deaths that may be, but are remaining in less certain status," said Malcolm.