Medical certifier relied on symptoms in report of early COVID-19 death in Leavenworth County

By: - August 25, 2021 1:51 pm

A recently revised record lists COVID-19 as a contributing factor to a death in Kansas in January 2020. Previously, the earliest known death from COVID-19 in Kansas was two months later. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

TOPEKA — A medical certifier recently concluded COVID-19 contributed to a Jan. 9, 2020, death in Leavenworth County based on the person’s symptoms.

The case would be the first known death from COVID-19 anywhere in the United States, altering the understanding of where and when the virus first spread. Previously, the first known death from COVID-19 in Kansas was two months later, on March 11, 2020.

“The local medical certifier made the decision to amend the death certificate, months after the death, because the individual’s symptoms were similar to other COVID-19 death symptoms,” said Matt Lara, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “It is unclear — and seems unlikely given the early date of this death — that a COVID-19 test was administered to confirm the virus as the cause of death.”

Lara said KDHE doesn’t have information to evaluate the conclusion that COVID-19 was a factor in this case.

“However,” Lara said, “the determination made in this case isn’t just an outlier — it conflicts with all of the data we have on COVID cases in Kansas and the region at the time of the individual’s death.”

He also said there are no plans at this time to investigate the case.

The revelation that deaths from the early days of the pandemic had been added to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database was first reported by the San Jose, California, Mercury News.

KDHE initially refused to provide basic information about the January 2020 death, then reversed course after Kansas Reflector and other news outlets reported on the situation. Kansas law prohibits the release of personally identifiable medical records, but KDHE has reported the dates and counties of COVID-19 deaths and cases throughout the pandemic.

COVID-19 has now killed 5,535 Kansans, including 37 deaths reported by KDHE between Monday and Wednesday. There were also 3,478 new cases and 101 new hospitalizations since Monday.

Nearly all of the new cases are attributed to the highly contagious delta variant, and nearly all of the new hospitalizations and deaths involve people who are not vaccinated. CDC numbers show 56.3% of eligible Kansans are fully vaccinated, and 67.1% have received at least one dose of the free, safe and effective vaccines.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.