The Maharashtra government has added 862 deaths to its Mumbai COVID-19 toll database following the completion of a reconciliation drive on Tuesday, in a move that could lend fuelto the Opposition’s allegations of data jugglery.
Senior State government officials, however, attribute the data gap to a manpower shortage.
Of the over 1,300 cases of deaths scrutinised during the exercise announced by Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta recently, 862 have been found to be related to COVID-19 that were not added to the city’s official death toll. The final tally is now 3,167 as on Tuesday. Another 466 deaths have been added to the State fatalities, taking the overall toll to 5,537 as on Tuesday (see box).
The cases in Mumbai were being scrutinised by the civic Death Audit Committee and there was no attempt to suppress the numbers, senior officials said.
The scrutiny of over 1,300 cases was done as per the universally-approved ICD-10-CM (coding and reporting) guidelines of the U.S.-based Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the National Center for Health Statistics.
However, because of manpower shortage, the civic committee met only once as opposed to the required three times a week, leading to a backlog in which deaths could not be ascertained, officials said.
“The data was anyway going to be updated in a day or two but was leaked and turned into a conspiracy of suppression of facts. There was no deliberate attempt to bury the numbers,” said a senior official.
The State’s surveillance officer Dr. Pradeep Awate said the backlog is cleared every day. “The data has to be screened, checked for duplication, and then added to the list. We have been carrying out this process on a daily basis,” said Dr. Awate.
At least 95% of data has been reconciled already, he said. The data bulletin released every evening provides an update of deaths over the past 48 hours in addition to “a chunk of deaths from the previous backlog,” said Dr. Awate.
State officials said this is the first time they are handling so much data on a daily basis. “We have dealt with malaria, dengue, H1N1 etc but there are many more cases now. In just two-and-a-half months, we have got data of more than one lakh cases. This time is also tedious because of manpower issues,” said Dr. Awate.
Former chief minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Devendra Fadnavis had on Monday alleged the committee had labelled nearly 451 cases as ‘non-COVID’ deaths, while at least 500 deaths due to COVID-19 in various hospitals in the city have not been presented before the committee. In all, there is a shortfall of nearly 950 deaths in the tally, he said.
Mr. Fadnavis told The Hindu the number will only grow in the days to come. “In some death certificates, they wrote ‘Covid suspect’, in others they mentioned different causes. The committee should only sit on those death cases where there is a doubt. For the remaining ones, the ICMR rules are clear that a decision must be made in less than seven days,” he said.
He also said the audit committee was given a new mandate that ran contrary to ICMR guidelines. “In May, 560 deaths were not accounted for although they were COVID-19 deaths, and in June, 120 deaths are not accounted even though they are COVID-related. This clearly shows the State is trying to suppress the number of deaths in Mumbai.”
Mr. Mehta had on Monday admitted to “discrepancies” in the manual loading of data to the ICMR website and ordered a reconciliation drive on Monday. He, however, said there was no deliberate suppression of figures. In several cases, the cause of death may have been shown as COVID-19, while the actual reason may have been cardiac arrest or renal failure, he said. “There is no question of suppression of facts and figures, although there are political allegations that we’ve buried data,” Mr. Mehta had said.