Cook County searching for overlooked COVID-19 deaths as far back as November just ‘to cover our bases’

The state recorded its first COVID-19 death on March 16, but the medical examiner is investigating whether the death toll could have actually started months or more earlier.

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This image from undated video shows set-up for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s surge center in Chicago to handle the influx of COVID-19 cases in May of 2020.

This image from undated video provided by the Office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle shows set-up for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s surge center in Chicago to handle the influx of COVID-19 cases.

Office of Cook County Board President via AP

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office is planning to review a “handful” of cases dating as far back as November to determine whether some earlier coronavirus deaths were overlooked.

Officials will scrutinize deaths involving heart attack and pneumonia starting in late fall “to be on the safe side,” said Natalia Derevyanny, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Both of those causes of death have been linked to the coronavirus. The Wall Street Journal first reported the review of the case files.

The state recorded its first COVID-19 death on March 16, but the medical examiner is investigating whether the death toll could have actually started some three months or more earlier.

“We don’t anticipate having [coronavirus] cases from November, but if we found that we had cases in November, we might want to look even earlier,” Derevyanny said. “Again, we don’t anticipate that, we just want to cover our bases and make sure that we have the most complete data we can for COVID-19.”

Investigators plan to put tissue samples from the selected cases under a microscope to see if the pneumonia deaths were viral or if the heart attacks involved thrombosis, potential signs of coronavirus infection, Derevyanny said.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office reported the first heat-related death of the season in the county on July, 23, 2020.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office

Sun-Times file photo

The sample size under review is small because most heart attack or pneumonia cases are natural deaths that may have occurred at a hospital, meaning a physician would have signed off on the death certificate, Derevyanny said.

The conclusion of the review, which will begin this month, will depend on how many cases they find, as well as the office’s already enormous case load.From March 19, 2019 to April 19, 2019, the office handled 510 deaths. This year, in that same period, it handled over 1,600, Derevyanny said.

Derevyanny didn’t want to speculate about any potential conclusions of the review, but said taking a second look helps the office “completely do [its] due diligence.”

Should a review lead to a change in a person’s cause of death, the family will be notified.

Patricia Frieson, who died March 16, 2020 at age 61, was the first known coronavirus-related death in Illinois.

Patricia Frieson, who died March 16 at age 61, was the first known coronavirus-related death in Illinois.

Provided

As of Tuesday, Cook County has reported 1,922 deaths from the coronavirus in Chicago and suburban Cook. The first known COVID-19 in the county – and all of Illinois – was 61-year-old Patricia Frieson, a South Side nurse who died March 16.

“Frankly we want to ensure, from an epidemiological standpoint, that we are doing our due diligence and that we have as complete a picture as possible around the spread of COVID-19 for the residents of Cook County to know, I think it’s important for public health to know and I think it’ll give us a clearer picture,” Derevyanny said.

“We might find that our first case was indeed our first case, and that’s fine. It showcases that all of our processes are working accordingly. We might find that our first case may have been earlier and if that’s the case, I think it’ll only give us a greater picture of the spread of this virus.”

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