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Cook County death toll in less than five months surpasses entire 2019 tally: ‘We do not believe that these deaths had to occur’
“We’re used to dealing with death here — it’s our life’s work — but we’ll never be used to the tragedy that each death represents,” Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said.
Wednesday, May 27, 2020 Chicago Sun-Times by Rachel HInton
More people have died in Cook County in less than five months this year than in all of last year.
And more than half of those 2020 deaths were linked to COVID-19.
Those are the grim statistics released Wednesday by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, where pathologists are now conducting as many as four times as many autopsies on any given day.
So far this year, the office has handled more than 6,500 deaths in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Of the 6,586 cases the medical examiner’s office has recorded in 2020 more than half — 3,518 — were COVID-19 related deaths.
The medical examiner’s office usually sees roughly 6,300 deaths each year. Last year, it handled 6,274 cases, according to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
The office surpassed that 2019 number Saturday “and we’ve yet to reach the halfway mark of 2020,” Preckwinkle said at a news conference outside the medical examiner’s office Wednesday.
“Let that sink in,” she said. “As the deaths from COVID-19 continue to mount, the homicides and overdoses have not ceased. In fact, even without the COVID-19 cases the medical examiner’s office has seen almost 700 additional cases so far this year.”
The coronavirus, which has killed nearly 5,000 people in Illinois, has roughly tripled — and on some days, quadrupled — the case load at the medical examiner’s office. But non-coronavirus deaths, specifically overdoses and homicides, have also increased in 2020.
In 2019, the office saw 20 to 25 overdoses or homicides a day. Now it can be more than 100 per day, Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said.
“We’re used to dealing with death here — it’s our life’s work — but we’ll never be used to the tragedy that each death represents,” Arunkumar said. “While we concentrate on our mission to establish the cause and manner of death for cases that fall under our jurisdiction, we do not believe that these deaths had to occur. The deaths we deal with in our office are by and large preventable.”
The increased case load has meant longer shifts for many employees. The county’s surge center, which was opened in preparation for coronavirus deaths, has held about 350 people —the daily count can be anywhere between 120 and 150 bodies.
The office is also still reviewing 35 cases from Nov. 1 to mid-April to see if those deaths, listed as pneumonia and heart attack-related deaths, could be linked to COVID-19. If links to the virus are found, that could mean the county’s first confirmed coronavirus death was earlier than previously reported.
The medical examiner’s office is also looking to see if coronavirus played a factor in the deaths of those who had flu-like symptoms.
Depending on the results, the office could expand its review and start analyzing cases as far back as September, Arunkumar said.