DA Brauchler rebuffs lawmaker’s claim about false COVID-19 death numbers

Probe doesn’t support accusation about pandemic reporting

Elliott Wenzler
ewenzler@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/16/20

No charges will be forthcoming against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment after a state legislator accused the agency of falsifying COVID-19 death certificates, with District …

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DA Brauchler rebuffs lawmaker’s claim about false COVID-19 death numbers

Probe doesn’t support accusation about pandemic reporting

Posted

No charges will be forthcoming against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment after a state legislator accused the agency of falsifying COVID-19 death certificates, with District Attorney George Brauchler’s office saying he found no evidence to support the lawmaker’s accusation.

State Rep. Mark Baisley, R-Roxborough Park, requested that the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office begin an investigation into the state agency in a May 14 letter that was made public. His accusation came after he was forwarded a letter from Someren Glen, a senior living facility in Centennial.

In the letter, written to residents, family members and staff, the facility claimed that CDPHE planned to “override some of our attending physician’s rulings and reclassify some resident passings.”

After about a month-long review, Brauchler’s office announced on June 9 that his office found no evidence of CDPHE changing death certificates at the facility.

The DA’s office began investigating by locating all COVID-19 death certificates from the senior living facility to see if any had been altered, Brauchler said. They found three were marked as amended.

“Ultimately we contacted all the doctors and they all said that if there were changes in the death certificate, they made them, and it wasn’t because of pressure from the government and it wasn’t related to COVID-19,” Brauchler said.

In an emailed statement, CDPHE responded to the announcement.

“The public health field has high standards of data collection and dissemination, which CDPHE follows rigorously. This is illustrated by the DA’s response to the claim,” said the statement. “We are disappointed that such a bogus allegation would be perpetuated by a member of the General Assembly in the first place.”

Change in COVID-19 reporting

At the time of the Someren Glen letter, CDPHE was still only publicly reporting one figure for COVID-19 deaths, meaning that even if a death certificate marked someone as dying with the virus instead of from the virus, they were included in the official death tally. After Baisley’s complaint, the office announced that it would report two data points: one for those who died from the virus and another for those who died with it, but weren’t necessarily killed by it.

When asked about the state’s previous reporting protocol, the Colorado State Joint information Center said it had been following guidelines set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We follow the CDC-accepted surveillance case definition for COVID-19 cases and deaths, which was developed by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. These standards help assure that our comparisons are ‘apples to apples,’ ” the state’s response said.

Colorado Community Media also asked state officials if there are any other examples of deaths among people with other reportable diseases — diseases considered to be of great public health importance, which local, state or national agencies require to be reported when they are diagnosed — where they are required to be reported to the CDC in the same way.

“We collect outcomes (dead/alive) for most reportable conditions,” the state responded in an email.

The state also provided a link to the CDC website, which includes a list of other reportable diseases. The list can be found by going to cdc.gov, clicking on “A-Z Index” and then clicking on “National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS).”

In a news release made the day after Baisley’s letter, CDPHE addressed the accusation.

“The state also emphasized that it does not unilaterally change information on death certificates and does not question or try to change a physician’s diagnosis or causes-of-death determination,” according to the release.

As of June 15 there were 1,348 Colorado deaths caused by COVID-19 and 1,599 people who died with the virus, but not from it.

Transparency and truth

In a statement, Someren Glen said their initial letter was sent to inform residents and their families about a change in the number of COVID-19 deaths reported at their facility.

“We simply wanted to be transparent in our communication with our community during this difficult time,” according to the statement.

The state still only provides one figure for deaths in its outbreak data. For Someren Glen, there were six confirmed COVID-19 deaths listed as of June 10.

In response to the DA’s announcement, Baisley, who represents House District 39, said he is satisfied with the outcome of the DA’s investigation.

“I was after the truth and I don’t think we’re at the truth yet, but we’re closer,” Baisley said. “Those folks in the health agency that threatened the citizens in my district with jail for non-compliance got to see what it’s like to have the threat of jail ... And we made the reporting of COVID-19 deaths more accurate.”

In Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home order, which lasted from March 26 until April 27, penalties for failing to comply with the order could be punished with up to a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

Brauchler said he’s grateful that this issue was brought to his attention.

“If (Baisley) didn’t ask this question and we didn’t look around, you can imagine a conspiracy theory growing out of this,” he said. “If we didn’t review this then it just fuels the idea that you can’t trust the numbers, you can’t trust CDPHE ... I can say that isn’t going on in this case.”

He’s also glad that the reporting process has since changed.

“If you’re one of these facilities, having your name listed as a place where someone died from COVID-19 could be really problematic,” he said.

Baisley still claims, without providing additional evidence, that CDPHE is pushing a misleading, political agenda.

“What I hope that we will avoid going forward is promoting numbers that attempt to achieve some agenda. Especially an agenda of extending this (safer-at-home) order longer, beyond where it should be,” Baisley said.

Brauchler says he’s always cautious about involving the DA’s office in politics.

“I don’t want to be a tool for politics,” he said. “I’m not saying that happened here but I am very wary of confirming an investigation ... it makes it sound like I think something criminal is going on. I didn’t think that here.”

Colorado Community Media reporter Ellis Arnold contributed to this story.

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