Virus Outbreak Colorado (copy)

Juan Carlos Rangel, left, hugs his mother, Beatriz, and his father, Carlos, during the burial ceremony for Beatriz’s father, Saul Sanchez, in April at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Greeley. Sanchez, a longtime JBS employee, was the first to die of COVID-19 connected to the outbreak at the JBS meat processing plant.

The number of deaths attributed directly to COVID has climbed in recent weeks, not because mortality has jumped but because the decline in cases has given health officials time to catch up on the records needed to confirm the statistics.

The state publicly lists two death metrics. One is for deaths directly caused by COVID, or deaths for which the disease was a significant contributing factor. The other is deaths among cases, which is broader number. For months, those numbers were separated by a significant margin; in January, the "deaths among COVID cases" category had roughly 900 more fatalities than those directly due to the disease.

But those numbers have grown increasingly close together. As of Tuesday afternoon, just over 5,900 deaths among cases have been recorded; 5,802 are now said to have been caused by a COVID infection. 

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Health and Environment said there has typically been a lag time between adding deaths overall and clarifying that they're directly caused by COVID. 

"Availability of these numbers is subject to lag in the registration of deaths, coding of the cause of death information by (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and publication of these statistics by CDC and in turn CDPHE, all of which may take two to eight weeks," he wrote in an email.

As the national crisis level of the pandemic has lessened in recent weeks, federal -- and state -- officials have had a chance to "catch up" on the records, the spokesman said, which explains why the numbers are nearing each other.

"The recent downturn in deaths has likely allowed the CDC data collection systems that monitor deaths involving COVID-19 to catch up and in turn has also allowed the state to catch up," he wrote. 

In Colorado, the number of deaths directly attributable to COVID has declined consistently since its peak in December. Amid that fall surge, the state hit 445 deaths reported on one day in early December. There were just 54 deaths reported in the second week of February.