As hindsight comes into clearer focus, we're learning a lot about mistaken advice and policies amid the Covid-19 pandemic. One still murky and disputed area involves the death toll, now upwards of 640,000 in the U.S., according to CDC. Some insist the true count is much higher; others claim it's lower. Today, we begin with the startling results of our investigation that found in some documented cases, news that Covid was the cause of death was greatly exaggerated.
Grand County, Colorado, rural country a hundred miles outside of Denver.
Thanksgiving 2020, Lucais Reilly shoots his wife Kristin in the head, then turns the gun on himself, committing suicide. They have alcohol and drugs in their system and a history of domestic troubles.
Grand County coroner Brenda Bock explains how the small town tragedy is exposing serious questions about the way Covid deaths are counted.
Brenda Bock: I had a homicide-suicide the end of November, and the very next day it showed up on the state website as Covid deaths. And they were gunshot wounds. And I questioned that immediately because I had not even signed off the death certificates yet, and the state was already reporting them as Covid deaths.
Bock says somebody, somewhere had apparently run the couple’s names through a database showing they’d tested positive for Covid within 28 days of their death. Then recorded them as Covid deaths even though they died of gunshots.
Sharyl: If we look at the death certificates for the murder-suicide case, what will it say about Covid?
Bock: Nothing, absolutely nothing. I paid a forensic pathologist to do the autopsies on those two cases. And nowhere is COVID mentioned on those death certificates. Nowhere.
Bock: This is a copy of the death certificate, and nowhere does it say COVID. So we have a homicide, suicide, nothing to do with COVID.
Because there had been no Covid deaths within the geographic boundaries of Grand County in 2020, Bock was in a unique position to challenge the state’s accounting. In many cities and counties, the numbers are too big and the coroners would never know about discrepancies.
Within a week of the murder-suicide, two more Grand County deaths popped up on the state’s Covid count. Bock investigated and found out why she had no record of them.
Bock: Two of them were actually still alive, and yet they were counting them. Had I not called them on it and asked them who those were, where were they from, all the information about it and it's like, "Oh, well that was a typo. They just got put in there by accident."
Merrit Linke: The coroner did officially talk to us at one of our regular Tuesday County Commission meetings about this discrepancy in how the state was reporting our COVID numbers.
Merrit Linke is chair of the Grand County Board of Commissioners.
Linke: We drafted and signed a letter, all three Commissioners, and the coroner also signed, and sent it to the governor, saying “Hey, these numbers are not correct. It's not right. We should report these correctly, and please fix this."
It wasn’t just happening in Grand County. Dr. James Caruso is chief medical examiner and coroner for Denver.
Dr. James Caruso: I was told by some of my fellow coroners in the more rural counties in Colorado that it was happening to them, that they knew of issues where they had signed out a death certificate with perhaps trauma involved. And they were being advised that it was being counted as a Covid-related death.
Sharyl: When it comes to counting Coronavirus deaths, tell me what the story was, of what you discovered early on. What was happening?
Dr. Caruso: I think early on, the people signing the death certificates probably were doing it accurately. But at some level--maybe the state level, maybe the federal level--there's a possibility that they were cross-referencing Covid tests. And that people who tested positive for Covid were listed as a Covid-related death, regardless of their true cause of death. And I believe that's very erroneous, and not the way the statistics needed to be accumulated.
Caruso says he voiced his objections in April 2020 with the Colorado Department of Public Health.
Sharyl: How did you raise your concerns?
Caruso: I told them very clearly that someone can die “of” COVID or they can die “with” COVID. And the two are very different.
Others were also questioning the state’s count.
Bock: We had the coroner in Montezuma county. He had a death, an alcohol death, and it was counted as Covid. And he's the one that I guess got the ball rolling and started complaining.
As a result of the complaints, the state added subcategories showing number of deaths “Of” Covid and deaths “With Covid.” But months later, with the murder-suicide, there were still questions.
Sharyl: "Of Covid" presumably means the death is thought to have been caused directly by Covid.
Brenda Bock: Directly.
Sharyl: And "with COVID" means?
Bock: You had other underlying conditions.
Sharyl: Okay. So the murder-suicide should not have been counted under either of those categories?
Bock: Right. And that's what I complained about. And then when I did talk to the Governor, he told me he didn't believe it was right, but he wasn't going to have them remove it from the count because all the other states were doing it that way so we were going to also.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis declined our interview request. A spokesman said the governor agrees with Grand County coroner Bock and was “outraged” that a murder-suicide is recorded as Covid-related. “In an effort to be abundantly clear,” the governor adds, the state website explains that “some numbers combine deaths that were a direct result of COVID and deaths that occurred when the individual had COVID-19.”
During our visit to Colorado, the state’s total Covid-related death tally was 13,845. Separating out the deaths not directly caused by Covid cuts that number by about half with the rest dying “among” or “with” Covid — not because of it.
Sharyl (on-camera): The obvious implications are huge. If such a significant number of Colorado's "Covid deaths" weren’t directly caused by Covid, or even related at all in some cases, and if that bears out in other states, it means the national totals we've heard since the start of the pandemic could be largely misleading.
Dr. Deborah Birx (April 7, 2020): So I think in this country we've taken a very liberal approach to mortality.
The same time Colorado’s coroners were challenging the death count, Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force was being asked about the same thing.
Birx (April 7, 2020): The intent is right now, that if someone dies with COVID-19, we are counting that as a COVID-19 death.
Some of the eyebrow-raising examples of deaths attributed to covid include— Fatalities after traffic accidents, three Colorado nursing home deaths, even though the attending physicians said they weren’t related to coronavirus.
And a case in Nashville, Tennessee. In August 2020, Hal Short’s wife was stunned to see Covid-19 named as the cause on her husband’s death certificate— after he died of an aggressive cancer. He’d tested negative for coronavirus three times. Only after the family complained, was Covid-19 removed a clerical error blamed.
Mrs. Short: “That’s really not good enough, just saying I want, just saying ‘we made a mistake’ and we just forget about it. How many other people are you making this mistake with?
Government experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci claim, without evidence, there are likely far more Covid deaths than documented; not fewer.
Dr. Anthony Fauci (May 12, 2020): That the number is likely higher, I don’t know exactly what percent higher, but almost certainly it is higher.
Adding to the confusion— widely-cited sources, from the New York Times to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Dashboard compile and report different numbers. Johns Hopkins notes that “States are not consistent [and] may even retroactively change the numbers they report.”
Short of a national audit, some of the best hard evidence can only be found in small places like Grand County, Colorado where they know precisely who did or didn’t die of what within the county limits. And where Bock says there were no Covid deaths in 2020.
Bock: Not as far as I'm concerned.
But when we checked in July, the New York Times tally over-reported Grand County's 2020 Covid death toll by least 500%. It was missing one resident who reportedly died of Covid outside of the county. But the Times counted the unrelated heart attack; the two people who were alive - which were removed from the state total; and the murder-suicide of Lucais and Kristin Reilly.
Sharyl: What are the implications nationwide when we're looking at numbers then?
Bock: I believe they're very inflated. And don't get me wrong. I believe Covid is real. And I believe people do get very sick from it. And I do believe a small number do die from that. I do not believe a homicide-suicide belongs in that number. I don't, because my job is to tell the truth about why a person died, the cause and the manner. And I don't believe that what's going on is the truth.
Sharyl (On-camera): Alameda County, California changed their methodology in June to remove deaths that weren’t a direct result of Covid. That removed more than 400 people, or 25%, from their death toll.