COVID death count muted

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The state classification of COVID deaths has long been a contentious subject, and speculation is now causing the Monroe County Health Department to stop reporting them. 

Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner last reported the state’s death count for this county on Thursday. As of that date, the most recently classified “COVID death” the department was told of by the state was of a female in her 70s who was hospitalized. 

A few days earlier, Wagner reported four local deaths had been classified as COVID-related. Two were females in long-term care both in their 80s, one was a male in his 50s in long-term care and one was a male in his 60s. 

With this count, there have already been 26 such deaths this year in Monroe County. 

On Friday, however, Wagner announced he would no longer be informing the public of new COVID deaths as he does not have “any confidence” in their accuracy. 

Melaney Arnold, IDPH state public information officer, said her department 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.

She also clarified that COVID death classification has been refined since the start of the pandemic.

“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 death has been honed over the past year and a half to better reflect those who die of the disease.”

Still, Wagner said he has recently heard feedback from families and Monroe County Coroner Bob Hill of deaths deemed “COVID-related” 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.” 

Hill did not return repeated requests for comment on this matter.

The Republic-Times will continue to report local COVID-related deaths per the IDPH’s count.

School spread?

Wagner reported he believes Monroe County is on par with Illinois in that the number of reported active COVID cases are continuing to decrease as the Omicron variant seems to be fading.

He said that even with local schools switching to a mask optional policy, it does not seem COVID is spreading rapidly. 

“Everything is still decreasing,” Wagner said. “We haven’t seen any increases from the schools.” 

With the school mask issue now going to the Illinois Supreme Court as well as other movements of cases through the judicial system, schools are still awaiting updated guidance from the IDPH and Illinois State Board of Education, Wagner said. 

He said one key factor local schools are awaiting is advice on how to handle quarantines given they are no longer excluding asymptomatic children who would be considered “close contacts.” 

Wagner said school-aged students are less likely to exhibit symptoms should they contract COVID, so gaining an exact picture of COVID’s school landscape can be difficult – especially given new policies. 

“With the home tests and the children being likely to be asymptomatic, we’ll never know exactly what’s going on. All we will know is we won’t have the mass spread that we had previously, at least with Omicron. If something else comes out, all this can change,” Wagner said. 

He hopes that with a large percentage of the population having already had COVID along with increasing vaccination rates, that “the chain of spread is being broken.” 

Hospitalizations

The latest St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force data, reported Friday, is a testament to Omicron subsiding in the area. 

On Friday, task force hospitals – which include those in the BJC Health Care, SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke’s Hospital systems – had 288 COVID-positive hospital patients, with 53 COVID-positive individuals in the ICU and 35 requiring ventilators. 

Eight COVID-positive children ages 11 and under were hospitalized, with one being in the ICU. Six COVID-positive teenagers ages 12-18 were hospitalized, with one being in the ICU.

Of those hospitalized who tested positive for COVID, approximately 60 percent are unvaccinated. 

Task force leaders and Wagner have said one’s best defense against becoming seriously ill with COVID is being vaccinated and boosted. 

According to IDPH, 60.55 percent (20,800 residents) of Monroe County’s eligible population are fully vaccinated (two shots of Moderna or Pfizer, or one shot of J&J) as of Friday, and 10,494 booster doses had been administered. 

The Monroe County Health Department will host Moderna (18+) and Pfizer (12+) Clinics from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Thursday, March 3 and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, March 4. A Pediatric Pfizer Clinic (5-11 years) will be from 2-4 p.m. Wednesday, March 2. 

All clinics will be held at the department’s office, 1315 Jamie Lane, Waterloo. Appointments are recommended, but not required. Call or text 618-612-6695 to make an appointment. 

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