KSL Investigates: Are COVID-19 deaths in Utah inflated?

Nov 27, 2020, 10:07 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2023, 3:06 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Authorities with the Utah Department of Health on Friday reported an additional 15 of the state’s residents have died as a result of COVID-19, which brings Utah’s total virus death toll to 849.

Rumors persist that these numbers are inflated, or that anyone who dies and is positive for COVID-19 at the time of their death has COVID-19 listed as their cause of death, regardless of the circumstances of the death.

A Complex Investigative Process

Becky Ward is a health educator in the Department of Health’s Bureau of Epidemiology. The Utah Department of Health also oversees the state’s medical examiner.

“COVID deaths are reported and investigated just like any other death in Utah,” said Ward.

Becky Ward, health educator in the Department of Health’s Bureau of Epidemiology. (KSL-TV)

So far in 2020, 18,823 people have died in Utah. This is from any cause, including cardiac arrest, accidents and cancer. COVID-19 makes up 4.4% of that total to date.

Ward said there is a detailed process for determining the cause of death for any death in Utah, and that process has not changed during the pandemic.

“About 15-18% of all deaths go through the medical examiner,” said Ward. “It’s not unusual, it’s not atypical, but we want to make sure [COVID] deaths are verified and certified as a cause of death.”

Ward went on to say every deceased person whose body goes to the medical examiner receives a COVID-19 test. However, if the autopsy does not reveal that COVID-19 was the cause of death, it is not listed as such.

“It will not just automatically be listed as the cause of death,” she continued.

For bodies that do not go to the medical examiner, the attending medical professional will determine the cause of death.

Ward said causes can be further investigated by the medical examiner.

There have been a few cases that were originally listed as a COVID-19 death, but were ruled not to be COVID-caused after further investigation.

“That death would be removed from our case counts,” said Ward. “It’s a very strenuous process that these deaths go through before they’re reported to our dashboard.”

‘COVID Is Not A Money Maker’

One KSL viewer asked, “Do hospitals get paid more from Medicare and other insurance carriers if the deaths are coded as COVID-19?”

The CARES Act authorized hospitals to receive an additional 20% payment on top of Medicare rates for treating COVID-19 – for the care of a COVID-19 patient and the use of ventilators.

Since then, the rumor that hospitals were simply labeling non-COVID patients as having COVID-19 in order to get that additional 20% payment has widely circulated.

Overall, most hospitals are experiencing massive budget shortfalls. The American Hospital Association released a report in June estimating hospitals will lose $323 billion in 2020 because of the coronavirus.

The American Hospital Association estimates that U.S. hospitals and health systems will lose $120.5 billion between July and December
2020 due to reductions in patient volumes coming to baseline levels over the next 12 months. These losses are in
addition to the $202.6 billion in financial impact the AHA estimated for hospitals between March and June 2020,
bringing total loses for this calendar year to at least $323.1 billion, not including the impact of currently increasing
COVID-19 case rates. (AHA)

In that same month, Intermountain Healthcare announced that after enduring three months of the pandemic, it had lost $435 million in revenue.

This revenue loss in hospitals has been attributed to limits on elective procedures, fewer people coming to emergency departments for treatments and more bed space and care needed for severely ill COVID-19 patients.

Despite those losses, both University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare said in a joint statement that, “COVID is not a moneymaker.”

The spokesperson told the KSL Investigators:

“Our hospitals work closely with local and state health departments who follow strict criteria to determine the cause of death in collaboration with the Office of the Medical Examiner.

All hospitals across the state are seeing large increases in patients with the virus. Our caregivers are working hard to manage this significant increase in patient volume. They’re working through some very difficult and challenging circumstances. They’ve been doing this for many months and are exhausted. They’re also frustrated by any suggestion that the pandemic is a hoax or that the impact of this public health crisis is not real in any way.

We get paid whatever insurance pays, however COVID-19 has impacted a disproportionate number of people in at-risk communities. As a safety net hospital, we continue to take care of these patients, regardless of their ability to pay. We are caring for these patients in greater numbers than ever before.”

According to federal law, every hospital is required to display prices charged for procedures and equipment in a chargemaster, available for the public to see.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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KSL Investigates: Are COVID-19 deaths in Utah inflated?