Will the announced number of deaths from Covid-19 be accurate?


Two days after Connecticut officials announced the death of a Hartford infant was potentially the youngest victim of the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, questions remain about the 6-week-old baby’s exact cause of death.

The child arrived unresponsive at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center on March 26 and died that afternoon, and a preliminary police investigation into the infant’s death found no signs of trauma, officials said.

All patients who die in Connecticut hospitals during the pandemic are being tested for the virus, regardless of their manner of death, so the infant was tested post-mortem and the results came back positive.

Gov. Ned Lamont announced the baby’s death Wednesday at his daily coronavirus briefing and explicitly said the child’s death was caused by the virus. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin followed with his own emotional condolences to the family at his briefing an hour later and made the same implication.

“Probably the youngest person ever to die of COVID has died here in Connecticut,” Lamont said Wednesday in announcing the baby’s death.

But the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has not ruled that COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, caused the baby’s death as of Friday afternoon.

An official cause of death remains outstanding pending toxicology results, and officials said it is possible the child died not from the virus but from an underlying condition, sudden infant death syndrome or positional asphyxiation.

In the absence of that official determination Friday, Lamont and Connecticut State Epidemiologist Matthew Cartter retreated from directly connecting the cause of the infant’s death to the virus.

“We have our role. We have our job. The medical examiner has his job,” Cartter said. “They’re very separate, and we count different things.”

“But we do know that that little baby tested positive,” Lamont interjected.

The discrepancy stems from differences in the public reporting of COVID-19 cases between the state Department of Public Health and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, officials said Friday.

Public health officials report daily the total number of people who have died and have tested positive for the virus, either before or after their deaths, Cartter said.

But only the medical examiner determines whether the virus or complications it caused actually led to each of those peoples deaths.

“I don’t know the cause of death of this [infant] that you’re talking about or any of the people, because we don’t determine cause of death,” Cartter said. “We define lab-confirmed COVID-19 associated deaths as anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19, tests positive on a COVID-19 test before or around the time of death. We do not determine causality.”

Because the baby tested positive, it was reported properly as a death connected to a positive COVID-19 test result, Cartter said.

But Lamont presented the baby’s death as specifically caused by the virus, even though Chief Medical Examiner James Gill’s official cause of death finding is still outstanding.

“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to tell you that almost all the fatalities are related to people who are over 70 and over 80, but we have a tragic milestone in Connecticut,” Lamont said Wednesday. “Probably the youngest person ever to die of COVID has died here in Connecticut. That baby was less than 7 weeks old, and it just is a reminder that nobody is safe from this virus.

“For those young people who think maybe they’re a little more invincible, think again,” Lamont continued. “You’re endangering yourself, you’re endangering your family and you’re endangering everybody you come into contact with.”

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin implied the same connection during his Wednesday briefing a short time later.

“Our hearts break for that family, and our prayers are with the families of all of those who have lost loved ones and all of those affected by this ongoing epidemic,” he said, his voice breaking.

Questions arose Thursday, however, about whether the virus was directly connected to the baby’s death or if the child simply tested positive afterward. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has said only that its tests are still pending, and it was not clear if the infant had experienced any symptoms of the virus before it was hospitalized or if it even would show those symptoms at all.

Public health experts have indicated young children seem to be less susceptible to developing severe symptoms from COVID-19 and that elderly adults are most at risk for developing the most dangerous, lethal cases. As many as 25% of cases are asymptomatic, meaning they show none of the measurable or visible symptoms of the virus while they are sick, experts have found.

Hartford police conducted a preliminary investigation of the child’s death, as they would for all untimely deaths, and also await the final report from the medical examiner before closing the case, Lt. Paul Cicero said.

Detectives were called to the hospital just after 2:30 p.m. March 26 when the baby died, Cicero said. They also visited the house and interviewed family members, all of whom cooperated with police.

There was no sign of trauma at the time, but detectives could continue their investigation into the baby’s death should the medical examiner’s final report or toxicology results merit further criminal review, Cicero said.

“I understand the medical examiner is still waiting for test results to come back,” Cicero said. “I do know the baby tested positive for the virus, but until we have a final cause of death from the medical examiner, we don’t know whether it was the virus or a tragic accident, which unfortunately does happen.”

Zach Murdock can be reached at zmurdock@courant.com. Dave Altimari can be reached at daltimari@courant.com.

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