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COVID-19 death reporting battle – coroner vs. health dept. – ends in squeak

'I encourage you to vote no'

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GENEVA – In a 12-11 vote, the Kane County Board Tuesday effectively blocked an effort by Chairman Chris Lauzen to stop Kane County Connects from publishing the coroner’s weekly press release on the county’s COVID-19 deaths in favor of having only the Kane County Health Department data published.

Lauzen wanted Kane County Connects coordinator Rick Nagel to stop republishing Coroner Rob Russell’s press releases in the county’s electronic newsletter because his coronavirus death numbers are different than what is posted by the Kane County Health Department.

At issue is that Russell’s weekly press releases include residents from other counties who died in Kane County.

The resolution, called “Providing Guidance to Kane County Connects During Public Health Emergency,” states that Public Health Director Barbara Jeffers should be the sole provider of that information “to avoid unnecessary ambiguity and confusion.”

The reporting of coronavirus deaths is connected to the state reopening that “rely on accurate, consistent and non-duplicative death counts provided by Illinois county health departments.”

“There is a place and a time for everything and the coroner’s statistics under his guidance can go onto his website,” Lauzen said.

'I encourage you to vote no'

Speaking to the County Board, Nagel described the coroner’s Monday afternoon reports as the most accurate, complete and timely, with include local data regarding COVID-19 deaths in Kane County.

Nagel said in conversation with Lauzen, he deferred to Jeffers' judgment. In conversation with her, Nagel said Jeffers preferred that he not post the coroner’s press releases; or put in the information, but leave out the non-resident deaths.

In both cases, neither Lauzen nor Jeffers would order Nagel not to do it, as he answers to the county board.

“The Kane County Board is my boss and that is what I’ll do,” Nagel said. “The resolution asks you to direct that Kane County Connects stop publishing the coroner’s deaths. … I encourage you to vote no.”

Nagel said the coroner’s Monday press releases list age, gender, place and day of death, information not available on the Kane County Health Department’s dashboard, nor the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website.

Besides, Nagel said that Russell is required by law to report on the deaths of non-Kane County residents. Nagel noted that Russell differentiates non-resident deaths with an asterisk.

Not reporting the coroner’s press releases – as Kane County Connects does for all county-wide office-holders – would not solve the problem, Nagel said.

Different data that comes from the county’s health department, the state health department and scores of other websites have numbers that do not match up, Nagel said, because the data is collected at different times.

“The (Kane County Health Department COVID-19) Dashboard numbers do not match up with IDPH and those organizations work hand-in-hand,” Nagel said.

“The data he (Russell) prepares comes from death certificates entered by physicians,” Nagel said. “Not anyone here disputes the accuracy. This is information Kane County residents want to have. … Why wouldn’t we want to hear the most accurate, detailed information?”

Nagel said the coroner’s press release received 206,000 views.

“That’s a pretty good signal residents value it,” Nagel said.

'We are the experts in death'

Board member Anita Lewis, D-Aurora, said when she heard to the chairman’s online listening session, it seemed many people were confused by seeing different numbers from various sites.

“People are being bombarded with so much information, they do not take time to read the small print, so to speak,” Lewis said.

The county’s communications on COVID-19 should go through the Kane County Health Department, and the coroner can publish his press release on COVID deaths on his website, Lewis said.

But Board member Theresa Barreiro, D-Aurora, made a motion to table the issue, which passed 12-11, effectively shutting down all further discussion and action.

Russell said he disagreed with the idea that Kane County residents were confused by his press releases.

“I believe the argument that people can’t understand – that should be offensive to the public,” Russell said.

Russell said the details that he provides in his weekly press releases on coronavirus deaths are different than what the state and county health departments report, but as the coroner, his office’s perspective is different.

“The coroner’s office is not a medical office, but a law enforcement office,” Russell said. “Barb Jeffers is an expert in health. We are the experts in death. … Our numbers are accurate. I know where they lived and where they died. If somebody says we’re pumping the numbers – I have the death certificates and the COVID-positive deaths. If someone thinks I’m cooking the numbers, I invite them to come in and look.”

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