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New COVID-19 Death Dispute: Colorado Coroner Says State Mischaracterized Death

CORTEZ, Colo. (CBS4) - When police in Cortez, Colorado were called to Cortez City Park early on the morning of May 4, they found Sebastian Yellow, 35, lying on the ground and called it out as a code "Frank," meaning Yellow had died, according to a police report obtained by CBS4.

Within a week, local Montezuma County Coroner George Deavers determined Yellow had died of acute alcohol poisoning, his blood alcohol measured at .55, nearly twice the lethal limit.

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(credit: Sebastian Yellow)

"It was almost double what the minimum lethal amount was in the state", said Deavers, during an interview with CBS4.

But Deavers said that before he even signed the death certificate, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had already categorized Yellow's death as being due to COVID-19 and it was tabulated that way on the state's website.

"I can see no reason for this", said Deavers.

Yellow's death is the latest in Colorado raising eyebrows over the way the CDPHE is reclassifying deaths that runs contrary to what doctors and coroners initially ruled.

Last month, a CBS4 Investigation revealed the state health department reclassified three deaths at a Centennial nursing home as COVID-19 deaths, despite the fact attending physicians ruled all three were not related to coronavirus.

In each case, the residents had tested positive for COVID-19, but in each case, on-scene doctors ruled the deaths were not related to the virus. Still, in their official tally, the state increased the number of coronavirus deaths at the Someren Glen facility from four to seven, based on the disputed deaths.

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(credit: CBS)

On Thursday, state Rep. Mark Baisley, a Republican representing Douglas and Teller Counties, wrote a letter to District Attorney George Brauchler of the 18th Judicial District, asking for a criminal investigation into the reclassification of the Someren Glen deaths and criminal charges against Jill Ryan, the director of the state health department. Baisley wrote that what occurred was "deliberate acts of certificate falsification" and said Baisley, "I believe these acts of falsely altering death certificates to be criminal acts of tremendous concern to you and my constituents. I hereby request that you investigate this matter with the intent of bringing criminal charges against Jill Ryan."

Now Montezuma County Coroner George Deavers finds himself in a similar situation in southwestern Colorado, officially ruling Yellow's death as "ethanol toxicity" but seeing the state record it differently.

"They should have to be recording the same way I do. They have to go off the truth and facts and list it as such," said Deavers.

He said following Yellow's death, the man was tested for COVID-19 since he had been associating with someone who was positive for the virus, and the information can be useful in tracking the path of the virus. Deavers said that test on Yellow came back positive, but the coroner insists that had nothing to do with Yellow's death. In fact, Deavers says a secondary cause was cirrohsis of the liver.

COVID-19 coronavirus positive blood sample diagnosed in hospital testing generic
(credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus)

"It wasn't COVID, it was alcohol toxicity," said Deavers."Yes, he did have COVID but that is not what took his life."

Deavers said he has been calling officials at the CDPHE this week to understand why they classified Yellow's death as related to the virus, but he said as of Thursday morning, he had not yet received an explanation. He said in Cortez, citizens are wondering what's going on.

"They're thinking the state is trying to inflate numbers which it does look like it, whether they are or not, I don't know," said Deavers. He said some have suggested, "They're trying to make it look like its worse than it really is, I don't know if that's what their intentions are. Maybe they're trying to do it for some of the two trillion budgeted in for the COVID."

However some statisticians, epidemiologists and medical experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, have suggested that COVID-19 deaths are likely being undercounted, not over counted. Fauci testified this week before the Senate and was asked if 80,000 deaths from COVID was accurate.

"Most of us feel that the number of deaths are likely higher than that number," said Fauci. He told the Senate, "I don't know exactly what percent higher, but almost certainly it's higher."

CBS4 contacted the state health department Thursday requesting an explanation for how Yellow's death was categorized. No immediate explanation was given. But in the case of the Someren Glen deaths, a CDPHE spokesperson said, "The department follows the CDC's case definition of COVID-19 cases and deaths... When a person with a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 dies, their death is automatically counted as a COVID-19 death unless there is another cause that completely rules out COVID-19 such as a fatal physical injury."

Regardless, in Cortez, Deavers says the death of Sebastian Yellow and how the state is handling it is proving problematic. The county has recorded 25 coronavirus cases but 13 of those have recovered, so there are just a dozen active cases, and before Sebastian Yellow, two deaths.

The county applied May 4 for a variance from the statewide safer-at-home public health order to allow restaurants, retail establishments and other businesses to reopen. In its application the county cited its low number of coronavirus cases, but the CDPHE denied that request. The state health department said, "Our reviewers have some concerns about vulnerabilities in Montezuma County and want to monitor the situation before further considering a variance."

Deavers said, "We have a low number of cases, low number of deaths in our county and we have businesses here that possibly are not going to reopen. Apparently this specific case was what helped them deny letting the variance go through."

The state health department cited the number of coronavirus cases but other factors as well, including high death and infection rates in adjacent counties in New Mexico. In a letter to Montezuma County, CDPHE said it was concerned with increasing local cases and the situation in New Mexico which could cause problems for the health care system in Montezuma county.

CDPHE responded with this statement: We classify a death as confirmed when there was a case who had a positive SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) laboratory test and then died. We also classify some deaths as probable. You can find the full criteria for that on our website under "About our Data," but the gist is that there must be strong epidemiological evidence of COVID-19 such as a combination of close contact with a confirmed case and symptoms of COVID-19. We will also count a death as a COVID-19 death when there is no known positive laboratory test but the death certificate lists "COVID-19" as a cause of death.


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