Featured | The Murky Waters of Ventura County’s COVID 19 Numbers

By Phil Erwin and Debra Tash

Last year we attempted to discover the true impact of COVID 19 on the number of deaths in the County of Ventura.  Stonewalled at first, we did finally discover that the County is not the lead agency in this type of data collection.  January 4th 2021 was the last time the County reported comorbidities for those who succumbed to COVID.  Further the breakout statistic for these deaths is mixed in with “other” causes, at least, for public searches on the state level and that the reporting of such deaths apparently are not always backed up with laboratory evidence.  The County does not add these probable deaths to their COVID totals.

The Search begins

On December 4th of 2020, we sought clarification of the reported stats from Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura County’s Public Health Officer.   We asked Dr. Levin to advise us as to how many patients had succumbed to COVID and non-COVID causes during the COVID tracking period.   We considered this a valid request considering the profound impact the lockdowns and associated restrictions had on local businesses and the residents of Ventura County.

Dr. Levin responded that same day with the names of three County Health employees whom he felt would be helpful in responding to our query.   However, we had not received any further response after three days, so we repeated our request on December 7th.  We sent this under the California Records Act, expanding the scope to include the following data:

  • COVID Hospitalizations and ICU beds for November and December 2019 (Editor’s note, the pandemic was just beginning during those months so that is why we asked for these numbers)
  • Total # of hospital beds and ICU beds in the county, and the numbers of each occupied by patients with COVID 19, and with maladies other than COVID 19.
  • Deaths in the county during the tracking period of the COVID 19 pandemic, March of 2020 to present. List them by causes and the number that occurred, including suicides.   
  • Deaths during the same period in 2019 by cause and number.
  • Any data your department can provide that proves that either the business sector or family gatherings are responsible for the increase in positive tests.
  • How many of those positive tests are people with actual COVID symptoms

One week later, on December 14th, Ms. Ashley Bautista, the County Public Information Officer, denied our request “… it has been determined that the public interest is not served by diverting staff and resources away from emergency response to immediately respond to this request.”  She then cited Gov. Code, § 6255, which states, “The agency shall justify withholding any record by demonstrating that the record in question is exempt under express provisions of this chapter or that on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.”

We did not understand how staff reporting statistics we felt should already be readily available, and that were used to set public policy, would somehow interfere with the County’s “emergency response.”  We believed residents were owed the truth about the real impacts of COVID on the County’s health statistics.  So we mailed a formal request to the County Health Office for information under the California Records Act on December 15th.

We continued to press our request for what we felt were basic health statistics of importance to our readership and our community.  By April, when we still had not received a response from the County, we again contacted Ms. Bautista.  The case numbers were rapidly decreasing and it seemed the emergency should no longer be preventing the County from reporting statistics to the community, which was the sole purpose of our repeated requests.  Given the reluctance of the County to respond in any meaningful way, we informed Ms. Bautista that we would be publishing the entire e-mail exchange, so the public would be fully informed of our efforts on their behalf, and the County’s apparently reluctance to be transparent on this issue.

The County, after five months of inquiry, begins to provide data

It was at this time that Ms. Bautista finally responded with actual statistics.  She sent us the chart below which shows the statistics of death by various causes during the three years prior to the COVID pandemic, as well as the pandemic year of 2020 and January of 2021.  Ms. Bautista noted that “…almost all deaths increased…”, and that the figures for self-harm deaths tend to increase over time as the toxicology results can take months to come in.  Finally, she informed us that the deaths coded as due to COVID were included in the “OTHER” category, noting there was a 57% increase in the OTHER category over the average for the previous 3 years. 

We asked for further clarification because it made little sense to include COVID deaths, which local and state decision makers used, into the catch-all “Other” category.  If that category had, indeed, gone up during the pandemic, what other causes were included? 

Ms. Erin Slack MPH, an epidemiologist with the Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health Programs out of Oxnard, attempted to clarify the complex reporting system used by the state regarding the COVID deaths.  As you can see below not all deaths are confirmed to have succumbed from the virus.  Some of the death certificates have COVID as the cause but there was no laboratory evidence.  Those were deemed “probable” and were purportedly not counted by the County.  

“In order to understand the death data, it is also helpful to understand the reporting process.  Here are the steps that we take to ensure accuracy of our data.

VCPH Vital Records receives a pending death certificate through Electronic Death Registration System that has COVID listed in the chain of events or other significant conditions.

Vital Records staff searches the CalREDIE, (Link added: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/CalREDIE.aspx) our communicable disease surveillance system, in order to determine if the decedent had a confirmatory test for COVID. 

If we do not have record of the laboratory test, then they request it from the person registering the death certificate and ask our outbreak teams to see if they have a confirmatory lab.

If we are not able to obtain a confirmatory lab, then we have the following options:

Ask the certifier to obtain post mortem testing on the decedent to confirm COVID.

Ask the certifier to remove COVID from the death certificate or amend to probable or suspected COVID.  They do not always comply with our request.

Once the death certificate has been finalized, the certificate is sent to one of our Epidemiologists to update the communicable disease surveillance system to ensure the demographics are correct and link the mortality (death) data to the morbidity (case) data.

At the same time, the data from the death certificate is transmitted to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to determine the final cause of death based on what is listed in the chain of events and other significant conditions.  If COVID is listed in the chain of events, it is likely it will be the final cause of death.

The Epidemiologist will report out the death in one of two ways (see this document COVID Deaths_VCPH  for more information).  Only confirmed deaths are reported out on the PowerBI dashboard. 

Confirmed Death  – Confirmed PCR test and COVID listed in the chain of events or other significant conditions on the death certificate.

Probable Death – Presumptive laboratory evidence and COVID listed in the chain of events or other significant conditions on the death certificate.  Or, COVID listed in the chain of events or other significant conditions on the death certificate with no confirmatory laboratory evidence.

Not every Ventura County residents dies in our county; there are many residents that die in another county where they do not have the same process in place.  So, we often receive reallocated death certificates from other counties where COVID is listed on the death certificate but we do not have any confirmatory laboratory evidence of infection.  In that case, we use many investigative techniques to obtain the lab or end up reporting out the death as a probable death (not included in our death count).

If you look at the data table below, you will see that we had 7,627 deaths from January 2020 – January 2021 (based on date of death and not date of report and NCHS code = 111).  This is a bit higher than what Ashley had sent previously because it was pulled today instead of a month ago.  Sometimes it takes over a month for a final death certificate to be registered, and we were seeing big delays during the surge.  Of those 7,627 deaths, we reported 760 of them as being COVID associated meaning that COVID was listed in the chain of events or other significant conditions on the death certificate.  Of those 760 that we reported from January 2020 – January 2021, 658 or 86.6% ended up having COVID listed as the final cause of death (ICD – U071).  The remaining 102 had a different final cause of death even though COVID was listed somewhere on the death certificate; you can see during the surge in December/January deaths were more likely to be coded to COVID.  All deaths coded to COVID as the final cause of death would show up in the “Other” category for leading causes of death that was sent along previously.

During that same time period, we had 100 deaths where COVID was listed on the death certificate but we had no laboratory evidence reported to the health department, so those deaths were reported out as probable in our communicable disease surveillance system.  Again, during the surge, this was more likely to occur.

In a May 7th 2021 email Ms. Bautista informed us that the County is not where the raw data is reported. Quoting from that email: “All deaths that occur in the county are reported directly to the state Electronic Death Registration System (EDRS) The same process was in place prior to Covid, and there have been no changes to the process during the pandemic.  So how could they vet it per Ms. Slack’s analysis?  We followed Ms. Bautista’s suggestion after we asked why the numbers from her releases and spreadsheet didn’t match Ms. Slack’s and did a press request to the California Department of Public Health Department on accessing the state’s data on the COVID numbers.  The CDPH responded with the links below.

CDPH RESPONSE: Please see State Dashboard in the links below. You can also see total deaths for any specific date in our daily News Releases

Tracking COVID-19 in California State Dashboard – Daily COVID-19 data

County Map – Local data, including tier status and ICU capacity

Data and Tools – Models and dashboards for researchers, scientists and the public

Blueprint for a Safer Economy – Data for establishing tier status

COVID-19 Race & Ethnicity Data – Weekly updated Race & Ethnicity data

Cases and Deaths by Age Group – Weekly updated Deaths by Age Group data

Health Equity Dashboard – See how COVID-19 highlights existing inequities in health

We did do an analysis of one month, February 2021 through these portals.  February Summary FEB Deaths by Cause.

We found there were 9 days that were missing from the data, weekends and holidays where nothing was reported and did not seem to be adjusted on the first business day following the weekends and holidays, at least at the state level. And since the state includes COVID with all “Other” deaths, neither the state nor the county really explained how their catch-all category supports the existing/changing public health policies. 

Our attempt to reach a conclusion

Taking all this into account the waters appear to be even murkier then when we first asked.  January 4th 2021 was the last time Ms. Bautista reported comorbidities for COVID deaths.  This clouds the picture in not taking into account whether COVID was the cause or a contributing factor. Please note, we were never given an answer to our original question since the numbers were now mixed in with unknown causes in a category labeled OTHER as provided by Ms. Bautista and Ms. Slack. The County never was the lead in collecting this data, though they didn’t inform us of this until months later.  Hospitals and coroners report to the state through the CalREDIE system. It appears Ms. Bautista merely downloads a presorted dataset. Though this, too, is unclear since she never responded to our query on what she used to access the information given to local decision makers and what the public received in her daily press releases. Ms. Bautista separated the COVID numbers in those releases but we were not able to break out the numbers with the links given us by the CDPH.  We just do not have the time or money to do an in-depth dive into the raw data, if it is even available to the public.

What does beg an answer is this: if the number of COVID deaths was accessible to the County all along, since it appears they could sort data to pull out those numbers for their press releases and briefings, why did they stonewall us in December? We were only seeking a simple year to year comparison to discover whether or not other causes of death dropped or stayed relatively the same. This would have helped all of us understand the true impact of COVID.

There are two unsettled lawsuits against the County on this very issue.  The cross-complaint filed by Godspeak Calvary after the County sued the church for opening during the Health Department lockdown is still active.  That lawsuit is in the discovery phase and so far the County has not produced any of the 120 documents requested by the church’s attorneys.  The other suit was filed by the First Amendment Coalition for lack of transparency with the data Access To COVID-19 Data In Ventura County.

All we can do is provide what was given to us, and let you decide if our local Health Department has been forthcoming with the public.

 

Phil Erwin is an author, IT administrator and registered Independent living in Newbury Park. He would like to support some Democrat ideals, but he has a visceral hatred for Lies and Damn Lies (and is highly suspicious of Statistics.) That pretty much eliminates supporting most Democrats, and a bunch of Republicans to boot.

Debra Tash is Editor-in-Chief of Citizensjournal.us, past president for Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, business executive and award-winning author, residing in Somis.


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L Martinez
L Martinez
22 days ago

Thank you both for working hard to bring the obvious corruption to the light!

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
23 days ago

David F Puu said, “Or will the damage wrought by these people have been so severe that businesses and people will not be able to seek legal redress and accountability for actions resulting in harm to Public Health-Safety and the financial well being of Ventura County Businesses and Households?”

This is, in fact, the goal.

Textbook Cloward-Piven Strategy: orchestrate a crisis, overwhelm the system, destroy the system, and replace it with national socialism or communism.

Joan
Joan
23 days ago

i emailed Robert Levin a couple of weeks ago about PPE safety and how the Canadian health dept recalled the blue surgical masks from China with graphene (carcinogenic). Still no reply. He must acknowledge and inform the public. Do your job Levin!

C E Voigtsberger
C E Voigtsberger
23 days ago

I have a morbid habit of following the obituaries in the Star. For all the years I have been following same, the number listed in the weekly total has been between roughly, 25 to 35 deaths reported each week in the Sunday total. All through the plague madness that total has not been exceeded with the exception of one two week period when the totals were close to or slightly over 50. There is no CoD listed in the sum of the deaths each week, so no weighting or assignment of plague or no plague. Just plain folks who passed last week as reported to the Star from unknown sources.

That said, were there some surge in the average number of deaths from all causes, it just seems logical to me that increase would have been reflected in the totals reported from unknown sources to the Star. Except as noted, there was no surge. Any wonder why official pronouncements which apparently are to be accepted on faith fall somewhat short of the independent evidence in a public forum?

TOaks
TOaks
23 days ago

Great and frustrating read asking the questions I was hammering VCH on Nextdoor starting March 2020 with comorbidities and medical outcomes by zip code. But they put up a wall there too. I called, emailed, direct messaged. They even put up nonsense HIPPA obstacles. I answered – if you can report an illness, disease and death by zip, you sure as hell can report a recovery!

Rigoberto Vargas and Ashely Bautista are propagandists, Dr. Levin is incompetent and the BOS are lockstep rubberstamps in desk chairs.

Last edited 23 days ago by TOaks
Lorena
Lorena
27 days ago

Well done article. Thanks you very much. As for Mrs. Bautista she needs to understand that the law of gravity applies to lies too (one can’t conceal a lie for to long). I honestly and sincerely pray for Mrs. Bautista for she is in such a hard spot to cover for those she works for. And as the saying goes, “and the truth will set you free.” As more people take a stand like these two BRAVE journalist Mrs. Debra Tash and Mr. Phil Erwin we will be set free. And as for those making negative comments about this article, how much do you get pay? Or why is it okay for your government to withhold facts and true information from the people they took an oath to represent?

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The Murky Waters of Ventura County’s COVID 19 Numbers From Citizens Journal
27 days ago

[…] The Murky Waters of Ventura County’s COVID 19 Numbers […]

Tom
Tom
27 days ago

This column of numbers is from https://vcportal.ventura.org/covid19/docs/stats/COV_COVID-19_Daily_Stats_2021-05-17.xlsx. It purports to show the Total population of the 25 zip codes in Ventura County.
 
2,391
45,713
41,658
20,316
36,637
14,075
33,069
50,787
30,388
43,825
37,319
18,731
37,862
5,454
20,379
61,062
82,528
28,607
47,600
1,829
23,771
33,751
55,838
74,416
3,444
Reported Total = 846,249
Actual Total = 851,450
 
I believe the reported total of 846,249 is a reasonable estimate for the population of Ventura County, but the total zip code population includes some that are not Ventura County residents.

Ana Elliott
Ana Elliott
28 days ago

Maybe you can pursue your concerns with the health department.
To belittle , bash , insult Ms. Bautista for simply doing her job and informing the public with information that was given to her from the medical professionals who ultimately have the data , is not acceptable nor fair.
You are not in her shoes.
This pandemic has been a beast of a process for any sound individual to process let alone a newly appointed PIO.
A PIO who works long brutal days doing her best to inform the public .
Maybe we can all do our part just by considering to not put people down and criticizing
them.
She is doing her best for the public with the information given to her….AND IT’S A LOT!!!
Not to mention the 4 boys she’s raising too!!!

VC Surfer
VC Surfer
28 days ago
Reply to  Ana Elliott

Ms.Bautista has become the “Public DISinformation Officer.” She gave people the runaround for a year and now it is catching up with her. Maybe she is simply carrying out instructions, but what the public is getting is way less than “transparency.”

Thanks to Citizens Journal for researching this, digging out information and exposing the inconsistencies and gaps in it.

Ana Elliott
Ana Elliott
20 days ago
Reply to  VC Surfer

Oh anonymous eh?! Not enough huevos to disclose your name? Transparency…right.
You do her job since you think you’ve got it all figured out.

L Martinez
L Martinez
22 days ago
Reply to  Ana Elliott

Totally inappropriate to disclose her private information about her family Ana!!

Ana Elliott
Ana Elliott
20 days ago
Reply to  L Martinez

Inappropriate ?!
Are you kidding me?!! But it’s ok to call her a liar?!! Calling her “disinformation officer?” I’m a conservative through and through and I agree that things have been distorted at many levels throughout the governmental and healthcare entities involved with the COVID handling.
That being said…for God sake please stop your personal attacks on the messenger….please!

Sue
Sue
28 days ago

Much ado about nothing. This is a boring biased article. Get an epidemiologist to explain the issues to the authors

Citizen Reporter
Admin
28 days ago
Reply to  Sue

If you actually read the article, troll, you would know that they did in fact speak to at least one epidemiologist.

Jesse
Jesse
28 days ago

It doesn’t do much for your “journal’s” credibility to insult your own readers.

How about taking Sue’s comment constructively, talking to two dozen of the best epidemiologists and reporting on what you learn? Might that not be a better reaction to one of your readers than calling her names?

VC Surfer
VC Surfer
27 days ago
Reply to  Jesse

Calling a spade a spade is not “name-calling.” “Sue” and “Jesse” have been notorious trolls on this site for a long time. They are invariably negative, passive-aggressive and highly biased. The new owners might not be so tolerant.

Experts were consulted for this article- it looks like a big part of it consists of direct quotes.

Last edited 27 days ago by VC Surfer
Sue
Sue
28 days ago

Then have the epidemiologist poof read the article before publishing

Jesse
Jesse
28 days ago
Reply to  Debra Tash

Good catch Debra! She missed the “r” in proof.

Thanks for belittling her about it. Very professional.

And you forgot a period at the end of your second sentence.

Tommy
Tommy
23 days ago
Reply to  Jesse

Jesse, you are amazing!

Sue
Sue
28 days ago

Here is great article on the subject. Contrast and compare to the procedures Ventura followed.

Sue
Sue
28 days ago
Reply to  Sue
David F Puu
David F Puu
28 days ago

Thank you for engaging this sensitive and complex subject.

I wonder what the lay of the land will be when the courts are free of their own County and State related COVID restrictions, and the dockets clear up from the current deep backlog?

How much litigation will be filed by those harmed more by the arrogance and ignorance of Muni, County and State officials, than the threat of disease?

Or will the damage wrought by these people have been so severe that businesses and people will not be able to seek legal redress and accountability for actions resulting in harm to Public Health-Safety and the financial well being of Ventura County Businesses and Households?