MuckRock, the USA TODAY network and the Documenting COVID-19 project, a pandemic-era journalism project funded by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, won first place in the 2022 National Headliners Awards for online pandemic coverage or project.
The ongoing investigation — “Uncounted: The hidden death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic” — has found that death certificates, long prone to error, have gotten worse during the pandemic, resulting in thousands of uncounted COVID-19 deaths.
The project found that short-staffed, undertrained and overworked coroners and medical examiners took families at their word when they called to report the death of a relative at home. Coroners and medical examiners didn’t review medical histories or order tests to look for COVID-19. They, and even some physicians, attributed deaths to inaccurate and nonspecific causes that are meaningless to pathologists. In some cases, stringent rules for attributing a death to COVID-19 created obstacles for relatives of the deceased and contradicted CDC guidance.
In April 2022, the Documenting COVID-19 project and MuckRock, in collaboration with demographic researchers at Boston University, released a county-level data repository through a data-use agreement the partners signed with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data shows, in part, that between 158,000 and 165,000 more Americans died of natural causes, such as diabetes and hypertensive heart disease, over the past two years than historical norms would lead researchers to expect.
In its announcement, the judges noted that the “accurate reporting of deaths in a community is an important indicator of regional health and has legal and historic significance. Either from shame, fear or for political reasons, COVID deaths are going unreported in significant numbers in multiple jurisdictions.”
Reporters on the project include Dillon Bergin, Betsy Ladyzhets, Jake Kincaid and Derek Kravitz of the Documenting COVID-19 project; Sarah Haselhorst, The Clarion-Ledger; Ashley White and Andrew Capps, The Daily Advertiser; Rudi Keller, The Missouri Independent; and Nada Hassanein, USA TODAY. Editors include Steve Myers of USA TODAY and Derek Kravitz of MuckRock.