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Colorado coroner says death listed by state as COVID-19 related has much more to do with alcohol

Leadership in Southwestern Colorado's Montezuma County is angered by a decision to list a death of a 35-year old as related to COVID-19.

DENVER — Editors note: A day after this report, it was announced that Colorado will update the way it records data. Now, cases in which people had COVID-19 and died of another cause will be separate from the deaths that were caused by COVID-19. More details here.

The coroner of Montezuma County in southwestern Colorado couldn’t believe it when the state’s health department concluded a May 4 death in his county was the result of COVID-19.

“I know it’s not correct,” George Deavers told 9Wants to Know Thursday.  “Nowhere on the death certificate is COVID even listed.  It had nothing to do with his death.”

Deavers ought to know. The death certificate he signed just this week lists the official cause of death for the 35-year old man as “ethanol toxicity.”

In other words, Deavers said, he died because he drank too much alcohol.

“We did blood work. The blood work came back at 550 [mg/dL].  Anything over 300 is lethal,” he said.  To be clear, Deavers did test the body for COVID after he received word that the man might have had recent contact with someone with the virus. That test showed the man did, in fact, have COVID-19, but Deavers said he’s “99.9% certain” the virus did not cause the man’s death.

But the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) appears to disagree with Deavers’ assessment.  As of Thursday afternoon, CDPHE’s COVID-19 database lists three COVID-19 deaths in Montezuma County.

Montezuma County’s own website lists two. It classifies the third as “not caused by COVID.”

It’s a sign of a growing rift that has troubled county leadership at a time when they desperately want the county to be allowed to partially reopen restaurants and other businesses.

“They’re [CDPHE] still willing to publish it as a third COVID death in Montezuma County? How then can we trust any of their numbers?” said Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla during a meeting Thursday morning.

The county has reason to be concerned. This week, CDPHE did not accept the county’s request for a variance to allow some limited reopening of businesses that remain closed or severely restricted.

Credit: 9NEWS
CDPHE data | Coronavirus deaths by county today

In a letter sent Monday to the Montezuma County Administrator, CDPHE’s Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said, “Our reviewers have some concerns about vulnerabilities in Montezuma County and want to monitor the situation further before considering a variance.”

The letter does not reference the May 4 death and notes “a concerning increasing trend [of COVID-19 cases] in the last 10 days.”

“As I am sure you are aware, your neighboring counties, San Juan and McKinley Counties in New Mexico, have that state’s highest death and infection rates,” added Hunsaker Ryan.

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Deavers would at least like a better explanation than the one he has gotten.   “I called [CDPHE] again this morning and left another message. I have yet to hear from them.”

Late Thursday afternoon, 9Wants to Know received the following statement from CDPHE:

“We follow the CDC-accepted definition for COVID-19 cases and deaths, which was developed by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. These standards help assure that our comparisons are “apples to apples.”

Here’s how we classify deaths, in accordance to CDC nationwide accepted standards:

We classify a death as confirmed when there was a case who had a positive SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) laboratory test and then died. We also classify some deaths as probable. You can find the full criteria for that on our website under 'About our Data,' but the gist is that there must be strong epidemiological evidence of COVID-19 such as a combination of close contact with a confirmed case and symptoms of COVID-19. We will also count a death as a COVID-19 death when there is no known positive laboratory test but the death certificate lists “COVID-19” as a cause of death.”

While it's been reported nationally that hospitals could be eligible for more funding if a person is listed as a COVID-19 patient, this case would not fall into that category, as this man was never treated in a hospital.

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