The COVID-19 death count in Wharton County remained at one for weeks, but on Sunday, new data from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services revealed the current number of deaths is 17. The sudden jump in the death count, which remained stagnant since June 2, is likely due to a delay in reporting from the state, and is not cause for panic, local leaders say.

“Everybody just needs to remain vigilant and practice what the governor’s asking about wearing a mask,” El Campo Mayor Randy Collins said. “Also washing their hands and all the other CDC requirements.”

The current number of active cases for Wharton County is 230, with 253 reported recoveries and 517 total confirmed positives, as of Monday afternoon, according to HHS. Information was not available on when or where the 17 county deaths occurred, as of press time.

The message from local and national officials is the same it has been during the last several months. Hand washing, wearing a mask, social distancing and staying home when possible is the best way to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask order is still in place, and everyone older than age 10 is required to wear a face covering in public.

The Wharton County Office of Emergency Management and the Leader-News have been looking into why the COVID-19 counts have been so delayed, as unconfirmed reports of possible deaths have circulated. The lag time in reporting is likely due to state officials being swamped with the flood of data and numbers to handle since the start of the pandemic.

“The addition has been so slow,” OEM Coordinator Andy Kirkland said. “(The Texas Department of State Health) has shown us with one death since June. They just now changed up their criteria where instead of a epidemiologist going and looking at the report and doing everything, now they have to have the Bureau of Vital Statistics.”

DSHS has now changed their method of identifying COVID-19 deaths, according to a Monday press release. Instead of waiting for deaths to be confirmed through local health departments, the department is using death certificate information.

“This method allows fatalities to be counted faster with more comprehensive demographic data. Using death certificates also ensures consistent reporting across the state and enables DSHS to display fatalities by date of death, providing the public with more information about when deaths occurred,” according to the press release.

At this time, the Leader-News does not know how many weeks or months the current data lags behind. DSHS officials have not responded to the newspaper’s request for comment, as of press time. (Please look to future editions for more information.)

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