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Tennessee identifies 2,700 unreported COVID deaths, pushing the death toll beyond 20,000

Tennessee Guardsmen worked in hospitals at the height of the delta surge, which claimed many more lives than first reported.
Courtesy Tennessee Guard
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Tennessee Guardsmen worked in hospitals at the height of the delta surge, which claimed many more lives than first reported.

Tennessee health officials have identified an additional 2,700 COVID deaths, mostly related to the Delta surge that began in the summer.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, said Wednesday the lag in reporting is related to just how many deaths were occurring in September. But she also says there has been a sharp rise in people dying at home, and often that requires more time to process.

“Particularly when you’re talking about whether it is or is not a COVID-related death, there is some additional investigation that takes place,” she said. “So with an increase in at-home deaths, those death certificate processes take longer.”

But the primary culprit for the lag is the manual process used by many hospitals. This week, the state health department issued a memo to doctors, reminding them to notify the state online, by email or even by phone as soon as a COVID death is confirmed.

The Tennessee Department of Health was prompted to review death certificates because of new guidelines on COVID fatality reporting that take effect next year. Piercey said roughly 100 of the deaths previously unreported are due to reclassification at the request of families who are trying to obtain funeral benefits provided by FEMA.

The additional fatalities are scheduled to be posted to the state COVID tracking site the first week of January. The boost pushes Tennessee beyond 20,000 deaths due to COVID.

Blake Farmer is Nashville Public Radio's senior health care reporter. In a partnership with Kaiser Health News and NPR, Blake covers health in Tennessee and the health care industry in the Nashville area for local and national audiences.
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