County Coroner Sets Record Straight on COVID-19 Death Counts

The county does not count deaths which were not caused by COVID-19, which contradicts a popular talking point among coronavirus skeptics.

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[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article implied that Schroeder was skeptical of COVID-19; the article was updated to reflect that Schroeder had questioned the death total of the virus, not the virus itself. A paragraph of Schroeder’s full comment to The Voice was erroneously left out of the previous version, and has since been added to reflect the entirety of Schroeder’s statement. Both errors occurred during the editing version of the article, which was conducted after Mr. Utt finished working on the piece. The errors were promptly corrected when brought to The Voice’s attention, as any errors will be in the future.

The Voice stands by all other parts of the article. While Mr. Schroeder has called elements of the article into question, The Voice views the characterization of Mr. Schroeder doubting the death total as the true nature of his comments which Mr. Schroeder made during public meetings; he has implied the methodology of death totals are biased by using a statement from Dr. Ngozi Ezike. Dr. Ezike does not decide how COVID death totals are recorded in the State of Illinois, and her statement was actually factually incorrect. The Voice considers using an incorrect statement to call COVID death totals into question to be a blatant mischaracterization of how COVID-caused death certificates are processed in Illinois. Anyone using Dr. Ezike’s statements should understand that they are not accurate.]

Stephenson County Coroner Tim Leamon recently stated that he only counts a death as caused by COVID if the virus is the actual cause of death.

This means that if a person with COVID dies due to another reason, such as a pre-existing condition or accident, that does not increase the official tally of COVID deaths in Stephenson County. 

Leamon said this decision comes from the state-wide coroner’s association, meaning that every county coroner in Illinois follows this method.

This statement came during testimony at a July 7th meeting of the county’s Public Property & Safety Committee.

When asked by Committee Chair Mark Diddens how long this practice had been in place, Leamon responded by saying, “From the beginning.”

When asked for comment, board member Casey Anthony (D – District D) said she had spoken to the coroner personally, and was glad to learn that he will be testifying at the full county board meeting this Thursday, July 16.

Anthony told The Voice that she is “hopeful Mr. Leamon can present the information and answer questions so those on the board, and the public can have the accurate information.”

One member of the county board who has expressed skepticism about how COVID deaths are counted is Andy Schroeder (District G). 

He has alluded to a comment made by Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike:

“If you were in hospice and had already been given a few weeks to live, and then you also were found to have COVID, that would be counted as a COVID death. It means technically even if you died of a clear alternate cause, but you had COVID at the same time, it’s still listed as a COVID death. So, everyone who’s listed as a COVID death doesn’t mean that that was the cause of the death, but they had COVID at the time of the death.” 

While Dr. Ezike does not control the methods used by county coroners to count deaths, many have used her words as justification for politicization of the coronavirus.

When The Voice asked Schroeder if Coroner Leamon’s testimony contradicts his doubts about COVID death totals, he pointed to a May 21st statement by Stephenson County Public Health Administrator Craig Beintema that death counts would be counted as Dr. Ezike described.

However, Beintema does not perform the analysis of COVID deaths; that is Coroner Leamon. 

COVID skepticism has been common with some on the County Board since the beginning of the pandemic.

On April 25th, 14 Stephenson County Board members signed a letter to Governor Pritzker urging him to rescind the stay-at-home order. 

8 members refused to sign: the board’s 6 Democrats and 2 Republicans.

Since the letter was sent while the first wave of COVID was still raging in Illinois, and because testing had yet to be fully implemented in rural areas like Stephenson County, the letter was criticized by many as political pandering.

Many of Stephenson County’s positive tests occurred during the few weeks after the letter advocating looser health regulations was sent.

For reference, the 14 board members who signed the letter critical of the Pritzker administration were:

Rebecca Quiggle (District C), Dale Diddens (District E), Brad Hartog (District F), Andy Schroeder (District G), Anthony Kuhlemeier (District G), Alvin Wire (District H), Jerome Pardus (District H), Scott Helms (District I), Todd Welch (District I), Steve Fricke (District J), Paul Fosler (District J), Mark Diddens (District K), Jerry Clay (District L), and Jim Pinter (District L)

The 8 members who refused to sign the letter were:

Democrats Samuel Newton (District B – Vice Chair), Ronnie Bush (District B), Becky Hebert (District C), Casey Anthony (District D), Charles Hilton (District D), Brenda Boynton (District K), and Republicans Bill Hadley (District E – Chair) with Christopher Clukey (District F)

Leamon sent a lengthy statement to The Voice when asked about his comments at the July 7th meeting. We have included it here in its entirety.

“I am aware that some believe that the numbers being reported are inaccurate. This is the first time someone has actually come to the person that fills out the death certificate in the county and asked for specifics. 

Each Coroner in the state of Illinois is able to report a death in the cause and manner they feel to be the most appropriate. Early on we did not have the ability to obtain post mortem testing, so the only deaths that I reported were those who had a positive test result prior to death. This has since changed and we are able to test postmortem. I can say that if someone passes away from trauma or unrelated illness that the COVID-19 test result will not appear on cause of death. In section 2 of the death certificate it could be listed under significant conditions present not resulting in death. 

It was also brought to the attention of the Coroner and Medical Examiner’s association in April that in order to receive the U07.1 code under the International Classification of Diseases that cause of death had to be specifically worded as COVID-19. Possible COVID 19 exposure, symptoms of COVID, or Coronavirus in the wording would not be reported in the statistical data.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion and this is still a very fluid situation with changes coming out daily.”

For transparency we have also included the full statements from board member Casey Anthony:

“I spoke with the Coroner this morning.   He did advise he would be speaking at the full board meeting on Thursday to answer any questions about COVID.  

I did learn that a physician in IL cannot do the death certificate for anyone who tests positive for COVID.  All of those deaths have to go through the Coroner’s office.  So, of the 6 deaths, Mr. Leamon saw 5 of them  – one Stephenson County resident died out of state.  

We talked a little about how he determines death in different scenarios, such as hospice.  

I am very happy he will be speaking on Thursday, so accurate information can be given.  Personal opinions should not be presented as fact.  We have a duty to educate and inform the county with facts.  I am hopeful Mr. Leamon can present the information and answer questions so those on the board, and the public can have the accurate information.”

and board member Andy Schroeder.

“In response to your email my response is as follows: 

• During a press conference in April of this year, the Illinois Director of Public Health, Dr. Ngozi Ezike responded to a question about the death of a teenager. During her response, Dr. Ezike essentially stated that anyone who dies after testing positive for COVID-19 is counted in the death statistics. In her response, Dr. Ezike also said “If you were in hospice and had already been given a few weeks to live, and then you also were found to have COVID, that would be counted as a COVID death. It means technically even if you died of a clear alternate cause, but you had COVID at the same time, it’s still listed as a COVID death. So, everyone who’s listed as a COVID death doesn’t mean that that was the cause of the death, but they had COVID at the time of the death”. Here is a link to a video with these comments: https://week.com/2020/04/20/idph-director-explains-how-covid-deaths-are-classified/

• During May 21st, 2020 Board meeting, I asked the Public Health Administrator for the Stephenson County Health Department, Craig Beintema, how our County is calculating COVID-19 deaths. This question was merely to find out if Stephenson County was calculating the deaths as was described by Dr. Ezike, or if we were using some other criteria. Prior to asking that question I had been specifically asked by constituents how deaths were being calculated in Stephenson County. When Mr. Beintema responded to my question, his response indicated that deaths would be calculated as was described by Dr. Ezike.

• At the June 18th, 2020 Board meeting, I asked that the information that was relayed to me about how Stephenson County is calculating COVID-19 deaths be added to the minutes of the May 21st Board Meeting. I requested this to have the information readily available to members of the public.

In summary, your assertion that may [sic] inquiry into how Stephenson County is calculating COVID-19 deaths is somehow politically motivated is false. As I have said on the record numerous times, COVID-19 is a serious virus, and my actions have reflected that sentiment. For example, at the March 12th, 2020 Nursing Center committee meeting, I was the person who made the motion to move future committee meetings out of Walnut Acres to protect the facility. I took this action well before any significant State-wide COVID-19 actions were taken.”

Carl Utt is a local Gay Atheist Liberal Democrat Insurance Agent, newly minted citizen journalist/activist, official pain in the ass of elected and unelected officials, and believes we’re currently presented with a once in a two lifetimes opportunity to change the world, right now. He can be reached at progressivevisionil@gmail.com or 815-616-5856.