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La Plata County man died of heart complications, not COVID-19, coroner rules

New reporting system helps clear up distinctions in causes of deaths

An 80-year-old man reported to be La Plata County’s only confirmed COVID-19 fatality died of congestive heart failure, not the novel coronavirus, according to La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith.

“It wasn’t right this man’s death should be attributed to COVID-19 when it didn’t have anything to do with it,” Smith said.

It is one of hundreds of cases across the state in which someone who died with the virus was counted among COVID-19 deaths, even though the virus may not have been the leading cause of the death.

A similar situation occurred earlier this month in Montezuma County, where a man with a blood-alcohol content of 0.55, or almost seven times the legal driving limit of 0.08 in Colorado, died of alcohol poisoning. But because the man also had COVID-19, public health officials counted him among the coronavirus deaths.

Public health officials have since changed their reporting practices to distinguish between those who died from COVID-19 and those who died for other reasons, but tested positive for the virus at the time of their death.

Smith said several factors led to the confused reporting of the La Plata County man.

For starters, when the man died May 9, it was reported to the Coroner’s Office as a positive case of coronavirus. Smith then called San Juan Basin Public Health to inform the agency of the case. SJBPH announced the death that day.

But upon more investigation, Smith learned other health factors went into the man’s death.

Smith

“I’m not saying San Juan Basin jumped the gun,” she said. “But maybe I shouldn’t have called as soon as I did.”

Upon speaking with family, Smith learned the man had tested positive for COVID-19 while in Denver for other medical treatment. But when he returned to Durango and was retested, the test came back inconclusive.

Health officials are quick to point out inconclusive tests are different from negative test results. For a test to come back inconclusive, there was likely an issue in specimen collection or lab processing.

The man hadn’t shown strong symptoms of COVID-19 since he returned to Durango, Smith said. But his health was steadily going downhill, she said, with a long list of health issues.

When he died May 9, there was no federal or state guidance for drawing a distinction between people who died with the coronavirus versus people who died from the virus.

“We did everything right according to the guidance at the time,” said Liane Jollon, executive director for SJBPH. “We never changed a death certificate or tried to mislead the public.”

Beginning Friday, the state began separating the two in its public reports. As of Monday, the state was reporting 1,224 total deaths, but only 921 directly related to COVID-19.

“I was uncomfortable with the way it was being recorded,” Smith said. ”But I like the way they (have since) separated the categories. I think that’s fair.”

Jollon

Jollon said health officials are only four months into studying COVID-19, and in response to the pandemic, there has been confusion about reporting and data collection.

“We know it’s frustrating for people to not understand everything about the virus,” she said. “But we don’t know everything about the virus yet.”

It’s possible, she said, that after further study, it could turn out the man’s death from congestive heart failure was in fact driven by the coronavirus. She likened the situation to the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s, when over time, deaths from pneumonia or cancer were ultimately attributed to the disease.

Jollon said health experts initially thought COVID-19 was a respiratory disease. But upon more study, it turns out the virus can attack the cardiovascular system, cause heart damage or strokes and even prompt kidney failure.

“When we’re dealing with new viruses, it takes a long time to get the full picture,” she said. “And our job right now isn’t to debate what the full picture is. Our job is to save lives.”

La Plata County is now reporting 72 positive cases, zero deaths because of COVID-19 and one death among positive cases.

Smith identified the deceased man as Robert Kujath, who founded and was a pastor for Pine Valley Church in 1996.

“He’s played a big role in a lot of people’s lives,” said Kujath’s son, Scott, who is the current pastor of the church. “We knew he didn’t die of COVID-19 ... so to have the state come back and make those clarifications, we appreciated it.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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