CENTENNIAL, Colo. (CBS4)- The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has reclassified three deaths at a Centennial nursing home as COVID-19 deaths, despite the fact attending physicians ruled all three were not related to coronavirus, according to a CBS4 Investigation.
The deaths occurred at Someren Glen, a senior living community with about 200 residents who receive various levels of care.
Tim Rogers, Executive Director at the facility, wrote that in mid-April, "We were informed of their (CDPHE) intention to override some of our physician's rulings and reclassify some resident passings we have experienced in the last few weeks."
The facility had four residents die with their deaths directly tied to coronavirus, and they were listed as such on the official state health department website. But Rogers, speaking of the three additional cases, wrote, "Other residents have passed, but the attending physician has ruled their death as a result of other ailments for which they were receiving care for including hospice services."
He went on to say, "We have never seen a situation where the health department overrules a physician's findings. However, these are unprecedented times and the health department official did not share their motivation for changing physician's orders."
Indeed, the CDPHE adjusted the number of COVID-19 related deaths at Someren Glen upwards from four to seven to include the three cases that a doctor said were not related to the virus. In each case, the CDPHE said the residents had tested positive for COVID-19, although it is unclear if that occurred before or after they died.
Responding to inquiries from CBS4, Ian Dickson a CDHPE spokesperson said, "The department follows the CDC's case definition of COVID-19 cases and deaths... When a person with a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 dies, their death is automatically counted as a COVID-19 death unless there is another cause that completely rules out COVID-19, such as a fatal physical injury. A pre-existing illness would not rule out COVID-19," wrote the department spokesman.
The disagreement reflects different ways deaths are now being assessed and counted, which has fueled speculation and conspiracy theories that the government is intentionally trying to inflate the number of coronavirus deaths.
But Dr. Kelly Lear, the coroner for Arapahoe County which covers Someren Glen, told CBS4 she does not believe that's the case. She suggests coronavirus deaths are likely being undercounted.
"I personally don't think there's a big conspiracy to over-inflate the numbers," said Lear.
"Part of the discrepancy is there are two different systems at play here."
She said the state health department is attempting to do surveillance of where COVID-19 is in the community. She said death certificates in her office will reflect what the attending physician ruled, not what the CDPHE decided.
She went on to say that in her view, COVID-19 deaths are likely being undercounted, with some people likely dying of the virus but never being tested. She also noted some tests record "false negatives," leading to an undercounting of coronavirus deaths. She said she ultimately believed the data will even out and accurately reflect the true number of people whose deaths were caused by the virus.
"There's all these different categories," said Lear, "and I don't think anybody is putting them consistently in one category or the other."
Pam Sullivan, a spokesperson for Someren Glen, said in a statement she could not "speculate as to the reasons" the state classified the three deaths as COVID-19.
"We had not seen this previously," said Sullivan. "Our focus is on the well-being of everyone who lives and works at our communities and we leave further comment on the action to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. We continue to follow every federal, state and local directive and are vigilant in combating the COVID-19 virus."
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