As COVID claims more lives, health department to stop reporting them

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The Monroe County Health Department learned of five new COVID-related deaths this week, but on Friday said it will no longer be providing such data.

The most recent death, reported Thursday to the local health department, was of a female in her 70s. She had been hospitalized but not in long-term care.

Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner reported Tuesday that four individuals had died of reasons relating to COVID: two females in long-term care, both in their 80s, a male in his 50s in long-term care and a male in his 60s.

This brings Monroe County’s overall COVID-related death total to 135, including 26 such deaths already in 2022.

On Friday, Wagner said he will no longer be informing the public as his department learns of new COVID deaths, as he no longer “has any confidence” in their accuracy.

As the Republic-Times reported multiple times, how the Illinois Department of Public Health classifies “COVID deaths” is a controversial topic.

Melaney Arnold, IDPH state public information officer, said IDPH classifies COVID deaths according to the national case definition for Vital Records Criteria for Reporting. This means a mortality is classified as a COVID death 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 death 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.

“While there are those who wish irresponsibly (to) attempt to discount the number of people who have died from COVID-19, the definition of a COVID-19 death has been honed over the past year and a half to better reflect those who die of the disease,” Arnold continued. “It is also important to note that early in the pandemic there were deaths due to COVID-19.”

Still, Wagner said he has recently heard feedback from families and Monroe County Coroner Bob Hill of deaths deemed “COVID deaths” by the state that he believes should not have been.

“Now, again, we are hearing about all these cases that probably shouldn’t be reported as COVID deaths,” Wagner said of his decision to no longer report this data. “This has nothing to do with a decrease in deaths (or) a decrease in cases – this is strictly because I cannot be sure of the accuracy of the deaths.”

Wagner reported he believes Monroe County is on par with Illinois in that the number of reported active COVID cases are continuing to decrease. Wagner said that overall, Illinois has seen a roughly 40 percent decrease in active case counts since the peak of the Omicron variant surge. 

He acknowledged given this, the increasing local death toll can be puzzling. 

“Deaths typically lag 3-4 weeks behind the surge,” Wagner said earlier this week, explaining individuals with COVID may not immediately succumb to the disease or related complications. 

He also pointed out many recent COVID deaths are of individuals in long-term care facilities. 

“If COVID gets into a long-term care facility, we’re going to have deaths – vaccinated or not,” Wagner said. 

Not only are individuals in long-term care facilities older, which in itself can be a risk factor for severe illness, many are immunocompromised for other reasons, Wagner said. The majority are vaccinated, but some may not be vaccinated due to other health conditions. 

Friday’s St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force data – which includes figures from the BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital systems – reported 405 COVID-positive patients were hospitalized, with the COVID-positive ICU census being 100. Of these critical care patients, 65 were on ventilators. 

COVID-related hospitalizations in the St. Louis region have been cut by roughly 1,000 over the past month, down from 1,449 patients on Jan. 17.

Approximately 60 percent of those hospitalized in the St. Louis are unvaccinated, the task force said.

Wagner has repeatedly stated that the COVID-19 vaccines prevent serious illness and even death, but may not necessarily prevent one from contracting the virus.

As of Friday, 60.20 percent (20,668 residents) of Monroe County’s eligible population are considered fully vaccinated (two shots of Moderna or Pfizer, or one shot of J&J), with 10,391 booster doses having been administered. 

The Monroe County Health Department will host a Moderna (ages 18 and up) and Pfizer (ages 12 and up) clinic from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, and a similar clinic from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24.

All clinics will be at the Monroe County Health Department office, 1315 Jamie Lane, Waterloo.

Appointments are recommended. Make an appointment by calling or texting 618-612-6695.

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