Port: Change in how coronavirus deaths are counted reduces North Dakota's total of people killed by the virus by 40 percent

A member of the North Dakota Health Department testing drive-thru scans the area before making his way to the next vehicle to continue testing the public for COVID-19 (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)
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MINOT, N.D. — In my last mailbag column I responded to a reader question about deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic by noting that how those deaths are calculated from state to state.

In North Dakota, the Department of Health has been publishing a number that represents people "who died from any cause while infected with COVID-19."

That means the total the state releases, and which is subsequently reported by people like me, is going to include deaths that may not be directly attributable to the pandemic.

With so much public debate taking place over the severity of this outbreak, and the risks involved with reopening our economy, some have said that this methodology can inflate the death count and thus the perceived severity of the virus.

Thankfully, the Department of Health has now addressed that issue with more data.


They're now breaking down their death total with some different categories, drawing distinctions from those who died with the virus and those who died because of the virus.

As I write this, the death total stands at 25, but here's how that number breaks down per the Department's website :


The number of North Dakotans who have died from the COVID-19 virus - as in that's the official cause of death - is 40% lower than the figure calculated using the previous methodology.

I'm sure will see in this development evidence of some conspiracy to exaggerate the seriousness of the virus to justify certain policies.

That would be a mistake.

For one thing, even 15 deaths is a terrible price to pay. One death is terrible. These are real people who lived real lives surrounded by friends and family, and they're much more than numbers on a spreadsheet.


For another, any given person's health is a hugely complex nexus of factors, from their past and present lifestyle choices to any pre-existing maladies they may have been suffering before contracting the virus.

Consider this hypothetical: An elderly person, near the end of their life and suffering from a pre-existing respiratory issue, contracts the virus. They were perhaps going to die on Wednesday but, because of the virus, they died on Tuesday.

Did the virus get them? Or was it old age? Or their pre-existing condition?

This not a simple thing to count.

Our public health officials have been reporting a number with transparent methodology. As this situation has unfolded, they've chosen to become more transparent about that methodology.

That's exactly what we want as this public debate moves forward.

Kudos to the Department of Health for providing this additional information, and helping our debate over how to respond to the virus be more nuanced than it was before.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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