SANTIAGO – In times of crisis, transparency is key to avoiding confusion. A constantly changing methodology around the death rate, however, is creating its own fog around the pandemic in Chile. Several days after announcing a change in counting Covid-19 deaths, the Chilean government returned today to publishing numbers that do not follow the World Health Organization’s recommendations.
The Health Ministry and the Piñera administration admit that the messages their messages over the last few days have been confusing; and with yet another change in methodology for counting Covid-19 related deaths, reporters, experts, and everyone else agrees.
This week, the government started publishing death numbers according to a new methodology. Previously, it had prided itself on the low death numbers compared to other countries in the world, but journalists and health experts were quick to point out that the authorities were not including several key factors in their daily reports. Numbers from the Civil Registry, people who died from Covid-19 symptoms without getting tested, were not included in the death rate. Instead, the government only registered those who died in hospitals while they were already tested on Covid-19.
Chile Today interviewed journalist Alejandra Matus, one of the most persistent critics in the current pandemic.
After surging criticism, the government changed the methodology on Monday, June 8, and death numbers skyrocketed. The government combined numbers from the Civil Registry with positive PCR tests from laboratories. To explain the sudden change in counting the deaths, the Health Ministry invited Science Minister Andre Couve to the daily presser.
However, later that same day, the Health Ministry announced it would change the methodology yet again – this time, to take into account the recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), the government decided to include “probable” cases. In other words, those who were suspected to have died from Covid-19 but whose deaths were not confirmed by a PCR test, would also be included.
On Wednesday, June 10, Health Minister Jaime Mañalich expressed yet a different message. At his presser, the minister said: “It seems to us that the appropriate criteria for Chile is to maintain the positive PCR certification that determines whether a person actually died from this disease.”
WHO on Chilean Covid-19 Deaths: “We Need Clarity”
Fernando Leanes, who represents the WHO in Chile, commented today, June 11, on the sudden change in methodology by the Chilean government. He reiterated that the recommendation of his organization is to include all deceased patient whose death is, according to health professionals, directly linked to Covid-19, even if there is no positive PCR test. “The change of methodology in the death count has generated confusion,” Leanes said. “There may be a reason [for the sudden change], but we have to find clarity quickly”.
So, How Does the Health Ministry Count Its Deaths?
Although it might be different tomorrow, or next week, the current methodology the Health Ministry is using is to combine information received from the Civil Registry, where families register decedents, and PCR tests from laboratories. For daily reports, this means that the 24-hour numbers are not up-to-date anymore: deaths are not always immediately registered in the Civil Registry, so the Health Ministry now publishes as “new deaths” deaths registered in the system, when in fact those deaths may have occurred days earlier.
According to the government, it takes information from one day, processes it the next, and publishes it two day later, meaning numbers have in general a two-day lag. When on Tuesday only 19 deaths were reported by the Health Ministry, this is because the Civil Registry on Sunday logs less. This also means that death numbers for Wednesday and Thursdays in Chile will be significantly higher than on other days.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.