County tallies five potential COVID deaths in three weeks

By Colleen Lehmann 
Douglas County Public Health Liaison
Heather Skinner took over Douglas County coroner duties in early July this year, and until this month, that office had not had occasion to deal with a COVID-related death. Unfortunately, she can’t say that anymore.

“There were no [coroner involved] Douglas County COVID deaths since July, when I took over, and now in November alone we have at least three, and are looking into two more likely COVID deaths,” says Skinner, a registered nurse who lives in Newman. 

While there were county residents who died from COVID or COVID-related complications from July to October, those people passed away in hospitals or somewhere else outside Douglas County borders, out of Skinner’s jurisdiction. The November deaths occurred at the people’s places of residence, in Douglas County. The three COVID confirmed deaths and the two currently under investigation all involved respiratory failure.

“We saw that number and, quite frankly it scared us at the health department,” said Amanda Minor, DCHD administrator.

Skinner agreed, noting “It’s alarming to see this happening here in such a relatively short period.”

That trend, quite tragically, is a nationwide one. On Wednesday, Nov. 18 the United States marked the heartbreaking distinction of surpassing 250,000 COVID deaths since the pandemic’s start, according to John Hopkins University.

How is a local death determined to fall under the COVID category? Skinner is no stranger to that query.

“This is a question I get frequently, and the answer is pretty straightforward. Would the person still be alive if not for having contracted COVID? Doesn’t matter what other underlying health issues they may have, would they still be alive if not for COVID? If the answer is yes, then it’s reported as a COVID death.” 

But getting to that “simple” determination is not without a significant amount of investigation.

“For instance, if the decedent was in a nursing home, we will request the face sheet that lists all their health issues. We may contact the treating physician to verify health history, check with family members and/or care providers regarding what symptoms had been presenting. There is a lot of collaboration involved in the process,” Skinner noted. 

Seeing the spike in COVID cases, here and essentially in all areas of the country, is a reminder of the importance of following safety protocols, Skinner stressed.

“There’s no getting around it. We all have to be diligent about listening to the science and modeling those best practices if we want to reach some semblance of ‘normal’. That means wearing a mask, social distancing six feet, washing your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, staying home as much as possible. It’s not fun, it’s not easy, but it is absolutely necessary.”

Skinner is extending that philosophy to her work situation, where she and Deputy Coroner Lisa Edwards share a relatively small office space.

“Since we do work in close quarters, we are making our schedules so that only one of us is physically in the office at a time. We are in regular contact virtually, of course, but are trying to keep just one person on site to lessen the chances of virus contraction wiping out our department.”

And the Skinner Thanksgiving table will be different this year, as well.

“We typically host both sides of the family here at our home, but made the decision not to do that this year with COVID on the rise. We have loved ones who are elderly, have health issues, and just can’t risk the possibility of them contracting the virus at our home. I hate that it has to be that way, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Douglas County’s COVID new-case count, from Nov. 1-18, is 373. That includes 44 positives reported on Nov. 18 alone, with five of those positives age 15 or younger. With no slowdown in sight, and area healthcare facilities and providers under increasing stress, it comes down to individuals making responsible short-term decisions for long-term results. 

Keeping counts down means keeping beds open at area hospitals … not just for COVID cases but heart attack and stroke patients, accident victims, burn patients, and surgery candidates. Your contribution to this effort could literally be a life-saving action.

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