LINCOLN COUNTY — The Oregon Health Authority this week reported Lincoln County’s first two COVID-related deaths since August, one of which again raised questions about what qualifies a fatality as coronavirus-related.
On Wednesday, the health authority included in its daily report the death of a 27-year-old Lincoln County man, who it said died Nov. 17 and tested positive for COVID-19 the next day. The report said the man had underlying conditions.
Amber Cuevas, sister of Rafael Cuevas, told the News-Times she and her family were somewhat surprised to see Lincoln County Public Health report the death of the man they knew to be her brother as COVID-related. The health department did tell them Rafael tested positive after he died — which also came as a surprise, she said, given how attentive he was in taking precautions — but the family had never been given a cause of death.
She said information shared by her brothers’ friends led them to believe it might have been an overdose, but she’d been denied twice when asking both the funeral home and a private doctor to arrange an autopsy, and the family is still awaiting a toxicology report. She said they were not aware of his having any underlying conditions.
“He wasn’t showing any symptoms of COVID,” she said, adding that they would definitely have been told if he was feeling ill. “He was very paranoid about COVID, so it was kind of a surprise to us when they told us he tested positive. He was very paranoid about it.”
Cuevas said the health department called the family after reporting the death to explain — public health uses health authority guidelines, which classify any death “within 60 days of the earliest available date among exposure to a confirmed case, onset of symptoms, or date of specimen collection for the first positive test” as COVID related. It also includes those where the death certificate lists COVID as a primary or contributing cause.
The health authority did not respond to the News-Times inquiry asking whether a death from overdose would be listed as COVID-related if the person tested positive, or if an overdose would be described as an “underlying condition.” A health authority spokesman told Portland’s KGW News in August that a COVID-positive individual who died in a motorcycle crash would be counted as a COVID-related death.
“We count COVID-19 deaths this way because the virus can often have effects on an individual’s health that may complicate their recovery from other diseases and conditions, even injuries, and indirectly contribute to their death,” the OHA spokesperson said. “Another reason is because OHA is using this data to track the spread of the disease, and to create actionable steps for stopping its spread.”
Such cases are a source of public confusion, and some states, like Colorado, have begun reporting in a manner that differentiates between those who died “with” and “of” COVID-19. Even with these cases where the cause of death seems wholly misattributed, data on excess deaths this year (tinyurl.com/yyrxnuep) — the number of deaths that occurred between February and September compared to a normal year — suggest the total COVID death toll may be undercounted.
Rafael Cuevas leaves behind a 2-year-old son. He worked as a line cook and had a passion for the craft. “He liked to go fishing. He was very happy,” Amber Cuevas said. “He was loud — you just knew when he walked into the house. He loved cooking. Whenever anyone said they were hungry, he’d ask, ‘What do you want to eat?’ My brother was just so happy. This is just crazy to me,” she said. She’d been woken up by friends who told her of her brother’s death, and she saw him shortly thereafter.
Rafael, known affectionately as Rafa, lived in Siletz about half the time and the other half in Newport with his sister, brothers and mother. They’d had contact with him in the days preceding his death, so they’re now quarantining, all while still trying to obtain an autopsy and raise money to bury a son, father and brother. They’d raised about $4,700 for funeral expenses through an online fundraiser as of Thursday morning (www.gofundme.com/f/rafas-funeral-cost), with a goal of $5,000, but Amber said they now expect the cost to be higher, as the service must take place during the weekend.
On Thanksgiving, the state health agency reported another COVID-related death in Lincoln County, a 72-year-old woman with underlying conditions, who died Nov. 16 in her residence and tested positive Nov. 17.
Fifteen deaths in Lincoln County have been classified as COVID related, with 11 of those occurring in long-term-care facilities in Newport and Lincoln City.