‘There’s no doubt that deaths were underreported:’ Many Iowans dying with symptoms like COVID-19
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - As of Tuesday night, more than 536,000 people in the United States died from COVID-19, including more than 5,600 Iowans.
Multiple experts told our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Unit that it’s likely those numbers are higher than what is reported.
That’s because many Iowans are dying of COVID-19-like symptoms and those cases are not necessarily being further investigated. Death certificates that i9 found show Iowans dying of respiratory conditions due to an underlying cause of pneumonia. County staff members told us about a similar trend as well.
Dr. James Gill, who is the chief medical examiner in Connecticut, said those are cases that need to be further investigated because there is likely another condition causing pneumonia.
“Pneumonia by itself really raises some questions,” Gill said. “Well, ‘why did that person get a Pneumonia’ and that’s the question you have to ask.”
Gill said pneumonia-caused deaths could be caused by a wide number of underlying conditions including dementia, homicide or even COVID-19.
“I mean we’ve had deaths where somebody got certified as pneumonia and you look into it and you find out, well, they got pneumonia because they’re quadriplegic because they sustained a gunshot two years ago,” Gill said. “And so the gunshot wound actually is the underlying cause of death and if you don’t search for that underlying reason for the cause of the death, you’re going to miss deaths like that.”
Gill also said that at the beginning of the pandemic, Connecticut was seeing a lot of death certificates with pneumonia certified as the original cause, then was later reclassified as COVID-19 deaths.
“We went to funeral homes and did swabbing of the body at the funeral home to see whether or not they were COVID infected or not,” Gill said. “And we found dozen of people who are positive with COVID-19 and up being certified as COVID-19 deaths. Even though the original death certificate didn’t list COVID-19 as the cause of death.”
In Iowa, medical examiners don’t investigate every death. State law only requires they investigate deaths of public interest, like homicides or contagious diseases. That would not include pneumonia or respiratory conditions. Gill said the law handcuffs medical examiners, in a way, because they often have to rely on doctors and town clerks to report cases to them.
Then, there are the COVID-19 deaths not even medical examiners knew about to investigate.
Dr. Donald Linder, who is the Linn County Medical Examiner, said sometimes when people died with COVID-19 those cases weren’t initially reported to his office.
“Well in the first few months of the pandemic, we were learning first, the second or third hand that that person had COVID,” Linder said. “Like, admit you were supposed to tell us.”
Linder said that and a lack of testing likely means that the number of reported deaths due to COVID-19 is lower than the true number of deaths in the state.
“There’s no doubt that deaths were underreported or slipped through the cracks,” Linder said.
Data from the Iowa Department of Public Health shows deaths increased in 2020 and 2021.
The state has had problems reporting deaths related to COVID-19 in the past. In November, i9 learned that Iowa’s data portal for COVID-19 under reported the number of deaths in some counties around the state. At the time, Appanoose County Health Department reported 27 deaths in the county, but the state’s data portal only reported 9 deaths.
A similar discrepancy occurred in Linn County. The Linn County Public Health Department reported 183 deaths, as of Wednesday. The state’s data portal reported 162 deaths.
The discrepancy was occurring because the state required a positive PCR test at the time and meant those who died from the virus and didn’t have a positive PCR test are not counted as a death. That was changed in December and allows medical professionals to determine if a death was related to the virus.
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