Rise in Kansas deaths attributable to COVID-19, audit shows

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Kansas saw more deaths last year than in 2019, with COVID-19 largely accounting for the increase, a new audit found.

A new audit released Tuesday showed that overall deaths were up 14% last year and specifically 36% within a four-month period at the end of last year.

Auditors found the leading causes of death in the state didn’t change substantially from 2019 to 2020 except for the additional deaths resulting from COVID-19.

COVID-19 was the state’s leading cause of death from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, more than the number of deaths for the same period in 2019 that were attributed to heart disease, cancer, respiratory illness, unintentional injuries and strokes.

While other causes of death were relatively flat for that same period, there were 2,608 more deaths in which COVID-19 was an underlying factor during the period examined by auditors.

The state saw a total of 12,500 deaths from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, of which 2,608 were attributed to COVID-19.

It was an increase of 3,331 in overall deaths from the same period in 2019.

Auditors said 78% of the increase in the last four months of the year was related to COVID-19.

The audit was requested by Republican state Rep. John Barker of Abilene who wanted to get a sense of the accuracy of the number of deaths being reported.

He wanted to see if the death certificates reflected a COVID-19 death, especially since the federal government was giving financial aid for funerals of COVID-19 victims.

“I was looking to make sure we were pretty accurate in that area,” he said.

He said he understood some families didn’t want relatives tested for COVID-19 at first but returned to see how the cause of death was listed on the death certificate when the federal aid became available.

Earlier this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency started providing financial assistance for funeral expenses after Jan. 20, 2020, for COVID-19 related deaths.

The assistance was limited to a maximum of $9,000 per funeral and $35,500 per application.

Applicants need an official death certificate that attributed the death to COVID-19 and shows that the death occurred in the United States.

The death certificate must indicate the death “may have been caused by” or “was likely the result of” COVID-19 or symptoms of the virus.

FEMA has already doled out more than $447 million to 66,800 people to assist with COVID-19 related funeral costs for deaths nationally.

About $4.5 million has already been allocated in 676 awards in Kansas.

Some Republicans lawmakers were hoping the death certificate data would show whether there were contributing causes to a COVID-19 death.

During a meeting Tuesday, some lawmakers expressed concerns whether some deaths were listed as related to COVID-19 when there might have been other contributing causes such as a heart attack.

“We just want to be sure the numbers that were reported are accurate and better understand the process of identifying those numbers,” said Republican state Rep. Kristey Williams, chair of the joint Legislative Post-Audit Committee.

“There was concern that they were accurate,” Williams said. “It’s a verification more than anything.”

Williams said the audit still didn’t provide details about how many deaths were a result of contributing factors.

Republican lawmakers expressed concerns about money being tied to a COVID-related death but didn’t mention the FEMA program for funeral assistance.

They asked if auditors if could go into more details about whether there was any financial aid related to a COVID-19 death.

Republican state Sen. Mike Thompson of Shawnee thinks the number of COVID-19 deaths have been inflated because they have been categorized that way when there might have been other contributing causes.

He asked for more information about any financial aid related to COVID-19 deaths, including any aid paid to hospitals.

He wanted to know when the financial aid started and if there was a correlation between an increase in COVID-19 deaths and any monetary assistance that might be available.

“I would like know if there really was some kind of financial incentive,” he said.

Democratic state Rep. Jim Gartner of Topeka said Republicans have been raising questions about COVID-19 deaths for months.

Gartner said the committee should bring an end to any more study of COVID-19 deaths.

“I think we’ve done enough,” Gartner said. “I think it’s ridiculous and we need to move on. The data is there. Get real.”