Bucks County Health Director Dr. David Damsker delivered a full-throated defense of his department’s methods of analyzing COVID-19 data, after a Thursday morning article from the Philadelphia Inquirer gave voice to a handful of critics.
“He pushed for schools to keep in-person instruction going as some experts urged virtual lessons,” the Inquirer article said. “And until recently his department kept its own count of COVID-19 deaths that tallied 100 fewer deaths than the state, in part because Damsker left out cases where his department deemed COVID-19 infection was not the ‘substantial’ cause of death.”
Damsker told the Delaware Valley Journal podcast a shift in that kind of record-keeping is based on a commonsense application of other medical factors. And, he argued, it’s a shift in COVID statistics that is overdue.
Damsker offered the following hypothetical:
“This person was already in hospice with end-stage pancreatic cancer (God forbid) and they were literally dying but they got COVID because one of the staff gave it to them and they died a few days later when they were already actively dying. That counts as a COVID death, and we in Bucks County decided we didn’t want to count deaths like that because that person was going to die anyway.”
Damsker clarified the kind of cancer was hypothetical, but the county has seen other patients who were already in late-stage hospice care who ended up contracting COVID just a short time before their passing.
The article also focused on “modified quarantine”— another technique in which the county has been on the cutting edge of change. Modified quarantine allows someone who has been in contact with a COVID-positive person to keep up with certain activities provided they wear a mask and stay six feet from others.
Damsker said the Bucks County Health Department created the technique by relying heavily on mask usage at a time when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not actively advocating masks. The intent was to help hospital and police departments in the crucial first weeks of the pandemic.
“We did it in multiple police, fire, EMS, who were exposed to a case because what would happen is, people would find out a little later that someone was positive, and we would have 10, 20 people sometimes [in the same department] exposed to a case. And that just shut down an entire police department.”
The three Bucks County commissioners — two Democrats and one Republican — did not offer comment to the Inquirer story. But the county confirmed to DVJ that Damsker has the full confidence and backing of each member on the board.
Data from the Pennsylvania COVID dashboard shows that the county is not an outlier — to the positive or the negative — in any of the major “per capita” statistics it keeps.
In early May, the Bucks County commissioners were among the first to break with Gov. Wolf’s leadership on the coronavirus crisis, sending a letter to Wolf asking him to reconsider various COVID metrics that were threatening to keep the county in lockdown longer than they felt necessary.
After more counties joined in, Wolf ultimately relented on a key statistic, and most of the counties in the southeast were able to progress from the “yellow” zone into “green” weeks in advance of what was originally predicted.
For more of Dr. Damsker’s thoughts, listen to the Delaware Valley Journal podcast: