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WNC Data Hunt Provides COVID Death Toll Preview

Drew Reisinger
Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger created this graph using 2020 death data (all causes) collected from all 100 Counties Register of Deeds offices in North Carolina. He collected previous year’s numbers through the NC State Center for Health";

As the country watches the COVID death toll cross the half million mark,  a Western North Carolina official has been taking inventory of the local impact.  As BPR’s Helen Chickering reports,  he ended up with a snapshot for the entire state.

“We were trying to close out our 2020 numbers and we came across this statistic that was pretty jaw-dropping,” says Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Drew Reisinger.   “For the first time in recorded history in Buncombe County, we had more deaths than births.”

Reisinger says in 2020 Buncombe County recorded 4,098 deaths and 4,050 births. “So, it took a pretty substantial event to create that.”

And while the 2020 numbers do not tease out cause of death, the finding does offer a snapshot of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the county.

“As always, our prayers are with those who've lost, loved ones every week,” said  Governor Roy Cooper after reading the  latest COVID-19 death numbers during a recent coronavirus  task force briefing.  In the final briefing of 2020, the governor announced just over 6,700 COVID related deaths.

It turns out death recording process is complicated in North Carolina. The state is one of just a few still using a manual paper-based system.   Reisinger says the official breakdown of excess deaths from the COVID pandemic probably won't be released by NCDHHS until the fall . But since Buncombe’s Register of Deeds was wrapping up 2020 death data, perhaps other counties were as well. Reisinger said he'd check and see.

“So, there's a Registers of Deeds for each of the 100 counties in NC,” says Reisinger, “and we all knew each other and have good rapport. I sent out an email saying I'd like to gather your information.”        

Turns out, Risinger heard back from all 100 counties. He gathered the numbers and compiled a   

Credit Drew Reisinger
Drew Reisinger,  Buncombe County Register of Deeds

spreadsheet. The final tally: 112,519 deaths (all causes)  in North Carolina in 2020, an increase of more than 16,000 from 2019.

“On the whole North Carolina had a death rate that was roughly 15% higher than previous years,” says Reisinger, “so if you look at it on a graph, it is this massive spike upwards. And we saw the same things in every Register of Deeds office. And we've been seeing it in Buncombe County for a long time, from funeral homes, talking about how they are just covered up every single week and that hasn't slowed down.

Reisinger points out North Carolina's death rate has increased over the past five years, anywhere from one to 3% a year, but.

“The 15% increase is substantial.”  

We reached out to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Servicesfor comment on Reisinger’s  snapshot finding and got a detailed response from the Office of Public Information:

 We do know that North Carolina is seeing a rise in deaths that is more than the natural increase seen year over year due to population growth and population age. However, we do not yet have enough data at this time to what North Carolina’s excess death range may show. The state will conduct an excess death analysis, but that analysis will not be available until we have received and processed all 2020 death certificates.” 

In the future that final tally may come quicker. Buncombe County is one of eight in the state testing, an electronic registration system. Meanwhile, at a time when many are suffering from pandemic fatigue, this Register of Deeds says he hopes his snapshot finding will serve as a wakeup call.

“Part of my hope is that people will use this as an opportunity to realize that people are dying at incredible rates around them. So, we need to check in on our neighbors. We need to check out our friends and family. Realistically, everyone we know probably has had someone die - who been close to them  - within the past year. We need to use that as inspiration to stay home and take this pandemic seriously.” 

Credit Drew Reisinger
Reisinger also collected 2020 birth data and says the total number of births in North Carolina was still greater than the total number of deaths.

A footnote,  Reisinger says he was curious to learn if North Carolina’s  2020  death rate would overtake the birth rate as it did in Buncombe County. He says his data snapshot shows so far, it has not. I'm Helen Chickering BPR news.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.
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