Minnesota Funeral Directors Grapple With Inflated COVID-19 Death Tolls

Gill Brothers Funeral and Cremation served Minnesota families by horse and buggy when it was founded in 1889 and has been family-owned ever since. When its President Dan McGraw, a funeral director since 1981, tells me the last two months have been “unprecedented,” he draws my undivided attention. McGraw explained that during the regular course of business, he picks up approximately two thirds of his decedents at long term care facilities or at private residences.

As a result, COVID testing has often not been feasible. During February and March, he said that many of those cause-of-deaths were recorded as COPD, Sepsis or pneumonia. Today, McGraw and other funeral directors we contacted, report striking increases in “COVID-19” as the cause of death. That may sound like a blinding flash of the obvious, but we invite you to follow us as we peel back the curtain on Minnesota’s runaway COVID-19 death count.     

The CDC issued new COVID-19 cause-of-death guidance on April 2nd. The CDC directed that if COVID was the most immediate and direct effect, it must be listed as the cause of death. McGraw and others believe this policy is dramatically inflating the impact of COVID here and across the nation.

One need only look at New York City for the startling impact of reclassifying untested long term care deaths. The New York Times reported that on April 14th, New York City changed 3700 untested deaths to probable COVID-19 deaths — increasing their COVID-19 death toll by more than 50 percent in one fell swoop.

We spoke with another Twin Cities funeral director responsible for transporting hundreds of state decedents. During the interview, he consulted a list of approved COVID symptoms that he keeps close at hand. “Fever, shortness of breath, dry cough, chills, headache, muscle aches and sore throat.” And then asked incredulously: “Medical examiners and certifiers are using those symptoms that could easily be a cold or flu and making a determination that the cause of death is COVID-19.”

The majority of his company’s April recoveries have been categorized as COVID-19. The recovery of those remains adds extra costs in time and (PPE) protective equipment required. Further, he recounted a recent pick-up; dispatched for a deceased male with terminal cancer, in hospice at home. He was very surprised to find that COVID-19 was recorded as the cause of death. At Gill Brothers, Dan McGraw reported a similar incident where he recovered a 50 year old male in hospice for a different disease and again COVID-19 was the cause of death.

The Twin Cities director was agitated when he asked:  “What useful purpose is being served to clump together decedents that passed away with COVID-19, and not necessarily as a direct cause? In his view, much of the rising Minnesota death toll was being fueled by loved ones passing “with COVID-19not from COVID-19.”

[caption id="attachment_1316507" align="alignnone" width="947"] Dan McGraw: Gill Brother Funeral[/caption]

On the other side of the world, his question is being answered. Sweden is being showcased as a model for laissez-faire management. They have not employed any lockdowns.  One of their key strategies is transparency. According to Stuff New Zealand, every time a Swedish patient is admitted, a live public web-site is updated in stunning detail. Average age: 60.  Those with underlying health conditions: 77 percent. And then the stark contrast. Sweden determines if the patient died from COVID-19 or from another disease “with COVID19.” This approach can mean significant differences in how governments, health authorities and the media treat the pandemic.'

It goes without saying that health statistics juicing COVID-19 numbers can facilitate blown health models and flawed public policy decisions. The University of Washington’s IHME model, which is used by the White House and many government agencies for planning has raised its projected death toll from 60,000 to 74,073 in a matter of just three weeks.

Back in Minnesota, Governor Walz extended the stay at home order until May 18th. It is hard to argue with the extension with ramped-up testing yielding record positive patients and the “official COVID-19 death count” steadily increasing. Behind the numbers, the Minnesota Department of Health reported on Wednesday that 99.2% of Minnesota COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long term care facilities or among people with significant underlying health conditions. Of 343 deaths through last week, 271 or 79 percent occurred in long term care facilities. Most of those fatalities are now being tested to confirm COVID-19.

In the meantime, Minnesota funeral directors like Dan McGraw continue to provide caring funeral services in the trenches. Thomas Wolfe called death, “the last voyage, the longest, the best.” For Gill Brothers Funeral and Cremation, that voyage was once escorted by horse carriage but today is led by funeral directors armed with surgical masks, gowns and gloves.   

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