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Nassau, Suffolk have changed how virus deaths are counted and totals jump

Mt. Sinai South Nassau Hospital medical staff at

Mt. Sinai South Nassau Hospital medical staff at the emergency room entrance in Oceanside, where they evaluate patients on March 31 to determine where they will be treated. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

The number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus has leapt in Nassau and Suffolk counties after officials changed how they are counting fatalities.

Suffolk County reported an increase of 51 recorded deaths on Sunday for a total of 175 after making the change. Nassau County, which had reported 162 deaths on Sunday, more than doubled its total to 381 deaths Monday after a similar change.

The counties switched from using their own fatality totals to state tallies released publicly for the first time on Sunday.

The state health department collects coronavirus data from hospitals then relays the information to county health officials. The data include the number of confirmed cases, information indicating the locations of confirmed cases and the locations of deaths. The counties have individually refined the state data before releasing it, resulting in the use of differing methodologies and varying totals.

As one example, state officials have assigned patients with incomplete, missing or faulty addresses to the county in which they tested positive for the virus, something neither Nassau nor Suffolk had done with their own tallies. Thus, the state’s method may include Queens residents who were tested across the New York City line and provided an incomplete address in the count for Nassau.

County spokesman Michael Fricchione said Nassau officials had tallied deaths only when they positively identified the patient as a Nassau resident in order “not to accidentally count fatalities” that belonged elsewhere.

The differing methods of locating the addresses of patients have also produced a potentially incomplete placement of confirmed cases in Long Island communities.

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Based on data provided by the counties, Newsday has tabulated the number of virus cases confirmed among residents of Long Island’s communities. The counties have acknowledged that those listings are likely the minimum number of cases in each locality.

Cumulatively they add up to fewer cases than the state attributes to both Nassau and Suffolk as wholes. On Monday, the state counted 74% more confirmed cases in Nassau than carried in the Nassau community tallies, and 18% more confirmed cases in Suffolk.

Explaining the discrepancy between Nassau and state figures, Fricchione said that Nassau had excluded from its count patients with state data showing a home address as a hospital or doctor's office, as well as post office boxes and business addresses. Additionally, he said that the state had assigned Nassau dozens of incomplete addresses for areas that straddle Nassau's border, including Floral Park, Bellerose and Farmingdale.

"The County has been underscoring the seriousness of the pandemic for the last month and was the first county in the state to provide an actual breakdown of cases on the community hamlet level," Fricchione said.

Suffolk officials said Monday they were including in their tallies patients who listed their home address as a hospital or doctor’s office address or business address. They were excluding patients with incomplete addresses and those with post office box addresses.

Suffolk officials did not respond late Monday to questions about how they identified patients as county residents.

In announcing that Suffolk would rely on state fatality numbers Sunday, County Executive Steve Bellone said the change would free up frontline county health workers from the task of providing daily updates on the details of those who had died.

"For me, the most important thing is for those front-line workers to be focused on their mission, and that is to save people's lives," Bellone said. "As far as reporting additional details, that is just not a priority."

The revised fatality numbers released by Nassau and Suffolk early Monday afternoon still varied from the state’s updated counts released late Monday afternoon. Those state numbers show 433 deaths of Nassau residents and 236 deaths of Suffolk residents.

With Candice Ferrette

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