TOPEKA, Kan. — COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in Kansas during the last four months of 2020, a legislative audit said Tuesday, prompting Republican lawmakers to call for more investigation of the numbers based on unsubstantiated theories that they could have been inflated.
The short report from the GOP-controlled Legislature's auditing division said there were "slight variations" in the number of deaths from Sept 1 through Dec. 31 due to what are traditionally the leading causes in Kansas, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and suicide. The audit said COVID-19 caused more than 2,500 deaths during those four months, surpassing deaths from each of the traditional top 10 causes.
Auditors also said that COVID-19 was largely responsible for a 14% increase in total deaths in Kansas for all of 2020. Deaths increased to about 31,000 last year from about 27,300 in 2019.
But Republican Sens. Caryn Tyson, of Parker, and Mike Thompson, of Shawnee, said they'll push for another review of the statistics to get more information about how doctors and medical examiners have concluded that COVID-19 is the underlying cause of a death.
"I've worried from the beginning - and not just in Kansas but nationwide - that those numbers were inflated," Thompson said after auditors presented their report to the legislative committee that oversees their work.
Republican lawmakers have strongly criticized Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly over her handling of the pandemic, arguing that she moved too quickly to shut down businesses and schools last spring and kept them closed for too long. Top GOP legislators used power granted to them by state law to end a state of emergency for the pandemic on June 15.
And some Republicans for months have pushed the idea that federal and state COVID-19 death statistics are inflated. One conspiracy theory circulating among conservatives last fall was debunked as a misrepresentation of federal Centers for Disease Control data.
"They're just questioning that COVID was actually killing people - believe it or not," said Rep. Jim Gartner, a Topeka Democrat who serves on the audit committee.
Later, Gartner added: "I think it's ridiculous and we need to move on."
Thompson said he and Tyson will draft a proposal for another audit, and the GOP-controlled audit committee is likely to consider at its next meeting in August.
"We sometimes hear from our constituents that they have situations - stories - in which a family member has died and have been marked as a COVID death, and we want to get the bottom of that," said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chair of the auditing committee.
As for the death numbers being inflated, Williams said, "I don't know that we have the data to substantiate that at this point."
Nationally, the 375,000 COVID-19 deaths last year made the novel coronavirus the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., behind heart disease and cancer. Had the 600,000-plus deaths to date occurred all in one year, COVID-19 would be the second leading cause of death in the U.S., behind only heart disease.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 5,150 COVID-19 deaths in the state as of Monday, or one for every 566 of the state's 2.9 million residents. Its figures reported 2,741 deaths last year, the bulk of them in the fall and winter.
The audit gave an example of how a doctor or medical examiner might conclude COVID-19 was the underlying cause of death for someone suffering from acute respiratory distress, viral pneumonia, COVID-19 and diabetes. Because both the first two causes could be caused by COVID-19, it "would then be listed as the underlying cause of death."
Meanwhile, the state health department reported that as of Monday, 44.1% of Kansas' 2.9 million residents or almost 1.29 million had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. The pace of inoculations has dropped, averaging 22,655 a day in April and 5,494 so far in June.