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DIGGING DEEPER: COVID-19 death toll in AZ, Pima County could be higher

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DIGGING DEEPER_ COVID-19 death toll could be higher

TUCSON - Not a day goes by we don't hear about the number of COVID-19 deaths in Arizona and in Pima County.

But, how accurate are those numbers?  Could the death toll be even higher?

The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office performs autopsies when there may be a question or uncertainty about the cause of death.

As of Wednesday, there have been more than 100 COVID-19-related deaths.

Dr. Greg Hess is the chief medical examiner.

Hess told News 4 Tucson they've certified 10 as secondary to viral pneumonia to COVID-19.

That means Hess's office performs autopsies on a fraction of those deaths because they already know how the person died.

"The vast majority of people who die as a result of viral pneumonia get ill, seek medical treatment, and they have lab testing done and radio graphs," Doctor Hess added. "As part of that lab testing, they could be tested for COVID-19 which would be an explanation for why they have that viral pneumonia."

Dr. Bob England heads the Pima County Health Department. 

England said getting an accurate count of COVID-19 cases is extremely difficult given the lack of widespread testing.

"We probably have something in the neighborhood of 50 times more infections out there than we have actually reported cases," England said.

So that means the number of fatalities is likely higher. 

"The bottom line is we are almost certainly under-counting COVID-19 related deaths," England explained. "By the time this is over, we are going to do some estimating of how much COVID-related fatalities there was and that will revise it even more."

At this point, how much more is an open question.