A CLOSER LOOK: explaining COVID-19 probable v confirmed cases

A Closer Look

Coroner: How can you say someone died from COVID if they were not tested?

ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — A COVID-19 confirmed case is a person who had a positive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

A COVID-19 probable case has one of three variables.

  • A person had symptoms and contact with another person who had COVID-19 but was never tested.
  • Positive antigen test for COVID-19.
  • The death certificate lists COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2, but the person was never tested for the disease.

Arkansas has 1,372 probable cases as of Wednesday, September 16. On Tuesday, September 15, Governor Asa Hutchinson said there were 139 new deaths listed as “probable cases,” bringing the state’s total deaths to more than 1,000.

Arkansas had not reported “probable cases” to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), something the CDC requested in collaboration with the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) — on a voluntary basis. The CSTE made the suggestion on April 5 and updated it on August 5. The updated position from CSTE was to include asymptomatic infections as a “nationally notifiable condition.” The overall goal was for states to have more accurate data, in turn, to assist with making decisions for the public’s health.

The Arkansas Department of Health said the 139 “probable case” deaths are based on going back through available data, including death certificates. Also, they said they followed guidance from the CDC.


Sebastian County Coroner Kenneth Hobbs has always been concerned with the accuracy of reporting COVID-19 deaths. Often, his death count has been higher than what ADH reported on any given day.

In July Kenneth Hobbs spoke with KNWA/FOX24:

“There have been more than 1,153 deaths in Sebastian County in 2020,” said Hobbs, “this is about 60 to 70 more deaths compared to last year.” In eight days, July 19 – 27, there were 60 deaths overall (not all COVID-19), according to Hobbs. The ADH reported 30 COVID-19 related deaths in Sebastian County, but Hobbs’s numbers are different. “As of July 26 there have been 18 COVID-19 reported deaths,” he said. He mentioned an ADH directive in terms of citing the cause of death as, “[they died] because of COVID, or with COVID,” said Hobbs. The wording gave him some concern.

Sebastian County Kenneth Hobbs

In July, Sebastian county had 2,722 cumulative cases, 2,371 recoveries, and 18 COVID deaths. As of mid-September, there were 3,321 cumulative cases, 2,964 recoveries, and 44 COVID deaths county-wide, according to ADH.

As of Monday, September 14, the county had recorded 1,328 deaths for the year. “That’s 110 more than 2019,” said Hobbs.

Of the overall deaths, about 52 have been COVID-19 related. Of those, approximately 17 were from nursing homes and 10 were poultry workers.

He said he has “mixed emotions” regarding COVID deaths that are probable cases. “If you don’t have definitive proof as to how someone died, then how is it COVID?” questioned Hobbs. In his opinion, if someone is not tested for COVID then how can you say they died from it?

Hobbs explained about the death of a Lavaca man who had underlying medical conditions and two days prior to his death he tested positive. “That man’s death was listed as COVID-19,” said Hobbs describing situations as slippery slopes.

“I never want to discount anything,” he said, “because there have been healthy people who have died from it [COVID].”

As for probable cases? “I’m not going to put down COVID-19 unless I have proof,” said Hobbs.


  • A diagnostic test shows if you have an active coronavirus infection and if you should quarantine or isolate from others. There are two types of diagnostic tests. PCR tests (molecular) that detect the virus’s genetic material and antigen tests that detect certain proteins on the surface of the virus.
  • An antibody test looks for antibodies that are made up of your immune system. Antibodies can take several days or weeks to develop after you have an infection and may linger in your blood for weeks after recovery. This is why the antibody test should not be used to diagnose an active COVID infection.

A CLOSER LOOK: tracking COVID-19 deaths from homes to nursing homes to hospitals

A CLOSER LOOK: Arkansas’ COVID-19 deaths

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