COVID-19 deaths

In this July 6, 2020, photo, Dr. Joseph Varon, right, leads a team as they try to save the life of a patient unsuccessfully inside the Coronavirus Unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston. The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 200,000 on Tuesday, Sept. 22.

Public health officials have begun pushing back against what they say are dangerous myths about deaths from COVID-19 — myths that downplay the dangers associated with the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Martha Buitrago, a local infectious disease expert, says when people think about how the virus affects people they might not account for a full range of underlying health conditions that are associated with deaths. It’s not just people “on their deathbed,” she said.

“These are not people who are severely immunocompromised,” Buitrago told the Post Register. ”The percentage of people with cancer or severe immune disorders — that is not the majority of people who have died.”

Buitrago is one of many Idaho public health experts and officials working to combat myths about coronavirus deaths. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late August spawned more conspiracy theories, but people have been floating falsehoods about the pandemic for months.

The common thread in messaging by these public health experts: COVID-19 worsens health conditions that many Americans already have, and death reporting has many safeguards in place to prevent misreporting.

Gov. Brad Little said on Sept. 3 that about one-third of all adults in the state — nearly a half-million Idahoans — are at risk for severe complications from the virus.

Little’s spokeswoman Marissa Morrison later told the Post Register that Little was citing an April 2020 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that 36.2 percent of Idaho adults and 37.6 percent of all adults in the nation were at risk for severe complications from COVID-19, which includes older age and a range of underlying health conditions, like hypertension, asthma, diabetes and obesity.

“These are our neighbors, family members and loved ones,” Little said.

Earlier that day, Eastern Idaho Public Health Director Geri Rackow said at a health board meeting that the CDC report spawned a “misleading narrative.” She asked Dr. Kenneth Krell, the director of Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center’s intensive care unit, to explain it.

Other health conditions “make them more susceptible,” but “by no means are they dying” from those health conditions, Krell said. COVID kills them.

“Make no mistake. Those patients would be alive today if it were not for contracting COVID,” he said. “This is not like influenza.”

The state Department of Health and Welfare even broached the issue. In its weekly COVID-19 talks on Facebook, public health administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch walked through the death certification process and showcased a sample certificate.

“There’s not any under-reporting or over-reporting with any intention,” Shaw-Tulloch said. ”We don’t have that capacity to do that because we’re not making those determinations.” Death certifiers make those calls, she said, and “inaccuracies are taken care of through our national health statistics.”

Deaths are one extreme effect of the virus that’s easy to measure. But the CDC says a lot is unknown about the long-term health consequences from the virus, such as heart damage. That mostly happens in people with underlying health conditions, but young adults have also seen heart damage from the virus.

“Covid seems to be affecting people across the board, regardless of their immune system,” Buitrago said.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.