Compared to those of 2020, the Monroe County Coroner’s Office saw more drug overdoses and less COVID deaths.
From 2020 to 2021, the coroner’s office saw a 75 percent increase in overdose deaths. In 2021, seven deaths resulted from drug and/or alcohol intoxication, whereas this figure was four in 2020.
Monroe County Coroner Bob Hill said the majority of these fatal overdoses were caused by fentanyl.
“The primary substance – in all but one case – has been fentanyl,” Hill said. “This is a highly lethal substance that is becoming more and more prevalent in street drugs. When buying street drugs, there is no way for someone to know the purity of what is bought or whether it is cut with another substance such as fentanyl.”
Hill reported a 29 percent decrease in deaths attributed to COVID-19. In 2020, Hill’s office responded to 18 COVID death calls, while in 2021 it handled 12.
“The numbers I’ve provided reflect the number of cases my office saw in 2021 in which COVID was listed as a cause of death or contributing condition on the final death certificate. This is how I reported cases in 2020 and how I will continue to report cases in the future,” Hill said.
The deaths in the coroner’s office annual report only reflect those Hill’s office responded to – meaning they are limited to individuals who died in Monroe County. They do not include those who were injured or fell ill in the county and died elsewhere.
“We respond on scene to all deaths within the county in which the deceased is not currently under hospice or nursing home care,” Hill said. “An exception to this would be if an ambulance is called for a hospice or nursing home patient, in which case we must respond. Another exception would be if a hospice nurse is unable to respond to a patient’s home to pronounce a death, we would respond to pronounce the death – as happened recently during the winter storms.”
The COVID-19 death total Hill reported does not reflect Monroe County individuals for whom COVID-19 was an immediate cause or significant factor in their death who died outside the county, such as in a hospital.
As the Republic-Times previously reported, deaths classified as “COVID-related” has been a contentious topic. After stating Hill believed the COVID death total his office was receiving from the state included deaths that should not have been classified as COVID deaths, Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner stopped reporting these figures this past February.
Similar concerns caused Wagner to pause reporting COVID deaths in late March 2021, resuming later in the year.
When asked about these concerns, Melaney Arnold, who was a state public information officer for IDPH at the time, said her department classifies deaths as COVID-related if the disease is listed as an immediate or underlying cause of death, or a significant condition contributing to death.
“We have worked to review death certificate data from the beginning of the pandemic to identify any COVID-19 deaths in which the cause of death listed on the certificate clearly indicates an alternative cause, such as due to motor vehicle accidents, overdoses or gunshot wounds, and have removed those deaths from our counts,” Arnold said earlier in 2022.
At the end of 2021, Wagner had reported 109 COVID-related deaths.
While the Monroe County Coroner’s Office received only one more call than in 2020 this past year (it logged 223 calls in 2021), it handled 15 more calls that required on-scene investigation in 2021.
Hill said the level of investigation required differs from case to case, but his office conducts scene analysis, body examinations, other forensic tests, and takes photographs for every death they pronounce. They also interview those close to the deceased to determine medical history.
“We often work with crime scene investigators and accident reconstructionists when circumstances require,” Hill said. “In instances of untimely, suspicious (and/or) violent deaths, much more investigation is required. Toxicology samples are drawn and I will consult with our forensic pathologists to determine whether an autopsy is warranted.”
The majority – 198 – of deaths handled by Hill’s office were deemed natural. The report defines a natural death as “one due to a spontaneous or naturally occurring disease or degenerative process.” The 12 COVID-related deaths are included in this count.
Hill’s office responded to two suicides – the same number as reported in 2020 – and 23 accidental deaths. Within the 23 accidental deaths, 11 resulted from falls, seven from drugs and/or alcohol intoxication, four from motor vehicle accidents and one from drowning.
There were no deaths classified as homicides for Monroe County in 2021.