The 421 suspicious COVID-19 deaths hidden in death records
Country/area: El Salvador
Organisation: elsalvador.com, El Diario de Hoy
Organisation size: Small
Publication date: 4 Jul 2020
Credit: Karla Arévalo, Lilian Martínez
The Data Unit of El Diario de Hoy visited the Family Status Registries of four municipalities and requested information from three more. The municipalities investigated are among the 15 with the most cases: San Salvador, Soyapango, San Miguel, Santa Ana, Ilopango, San Marcos and Santa Tecla.
Until June 15, six city halls recorded more than 421 suspected COVID-19 deaths on their death certificates. But, according to official data, to that date there were 76 deaths from COVID-19.
The post had 11,860 page views and an average read time of 3 minutes and 56 seconds. After the publication, the Minister of Health declared that "in all countries there is an under-registration of deaths from COVID-19", and explained that when the person dies without having been tested, even if they have had symptoms, their death is not registered as caused by COVID-19.
Days later, the association of Mayors, Comures, denounced before the Legislative Assembly that in their municipalities there were more burials with the COVID-19 protocol than the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 recognized by the central government.
We created a spreadsheet on Google Drive in which we aggregated the data we collected by visiting four family status records and making two requests for FOIA-type information. We share this spreadsheet with the intensive care physician José Gonzalo Batres Biares, based in Germany, who identified the deaths whose causes seemed justified and those that seemed suspicious because they were attributed, for example, to cardio-respiratory failure. Then, it was analyzed how many deaths had occurred at home and how many in hospitals, the ages and sex of deceased patients, the hospitals where they had died; the causes of deaths occurring at home, etc.
Finally, to visualize the data we use Flouirish.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The hardest part of the job was, first, convincing the mayors to let us review. Second, the record review involved a lot of work reading death certificates and adding the data in situ in the spreadsheet shared on Google Drive.
What can others learn from this project?
What other journalists can learn from this work is the need to seek alternative sources when the central government is suspected of publishing incomplete information.
In addition, they can learn that it is necessary to have the advice of a scientist, since journalists do not have the knowledge to distinguish between a death caused by COVID-19 or other causes. At this point, the collaboration of Dr. José Gonzalo Batres Baires was fundamental, since he treats patients with COVID-19 in a private hospital in Munich, Germany.