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Coroner explains how COVID-19 deaths are counted in Lake County

Lake County Coroner Dr. Howard Cooper details how the coroner’s office is handling the novel coronavirus.

Lake County Coroner Dr. Howard Cooper sat down and explained how his office is handling COVID-19 deaths and how they’re classified.

“It’s a pandemic. So the big issue is how do we protect ourselves from the virus and how do we help our community with this virus,” Cooper said, noting that the Lake County Coroner’s Office handles all deaths in the county.

“This is not new for me. I’ve been through this before. I was in New Orleans after [Hurricane] Katrina. The day after 9/11, I was in New York,” Cooper said.

The coroner’s office and the Lake County Health Department developed a pandemic plan for the county a few years ago, Lake County Coroner’s Office Commander Tammy Mayer said.

Cooper said his office sent the plans out to all police departments, fire departments, funeral homes, nursing homes and hospice agencies so they could be prepared.

The coroner’s office has provided personal protective equipment to funeral homes and other supplies that fire departments and hospitals need, Lake County Deputy Coroner Robert James Jr. said.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Egozi Ezike explained last weekend that anyone who dies and tests positive for the virus is included in the state’s COVID-19 death count.

“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,” Ezike said.

“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,” she added.

Cooper explained to Lake and McHenry County Scanner that his office classifies cases based on their cause of death.

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“If they die in a car crash and were COVID-19 positive, they are not marked as a COVID-19 death [in Lake County],” he said. However, if a person had an underlying disease and were COVID-19 positive, that would be classified as a COVID death.

Cooper said his office follows the guidelines of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), who advised medical examiners and coroners not to perform autopsies on those who test positive for COVID-19.

“Unless there’s an absolute reason to, we won’t perform an autopsy on them,” he said.

The Lake County Coroner’s Office has three semi-trailers at their offsite morgue.

The coroner’s office has brought in a refrigerated semi-trailer onsite in Waukegan along with three more refrigerated semi-trailers at their offsite morgue.

“We have those in anticipation of the body surge that we’re talking about, so we will be ready if they’re needed. But I have to be honest, I’m hoping we don’t need them,” Cooper said.

When handling a death, coroner’s office staff wear full body Tyvek protective suits and boot covers because a body can pass along the virus for at least three days after the person dies. The coroner’s office staff also wear a mask or a respirator, gloves and a face shield.

Cooper said that if his office is investigating a home death and they’re unsure why the person died, the person will be tested for COVID-19.

“I want to be able to tell the families that they had COVID-19 so that those families know that if they were in contact with their loved one, then they need to get tested as well,” he said.

“Ultimately I want everybody to stay safe and I don’t want people to die from this pandemic. We want to protect everybody in this county and we’re here for everyone,” Cooper said.


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