Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens

Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens said classifying deaths as COVID-19 is complicated, since some individuals who tested positive to the virus may have died of other causes. Owens said although 42 individuals who tested positive have died, only 22 are confirmed deaths as of Monday night.

At the end of the workday on Monday, Val Verde County Judge Lewis G. Owens Jr. said 42 persons in the county who previously tested positive for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, have died.

“As of right now (4:30 p.m. Monday), what we’re looking at right now, we have 42 individuals that have passed that we know are COVID-19 positive. Of those individuals, I can’t tell you for sure right now, how many died of COVID-19,” Owens said during an interview in his office.

There are several reasons for recent questions about COVID-19 deaths in Val Verde County, he said.

For instance, Owens said, a person who tested positive for COVID-19 but then dies in a motor vehicle crash would not be logged as a COVID-19 death.

The line becomes less clear when an individual suffers from a pre-existing disease or condition, such as cancer or congestive heart failure, and then also tests positive for COVID-19 and subsequently dies.

“If you’re sending the deceased individual for an autopsy, the medical examiner can make a ruling as to which one you died of,” Owens said.

“I can tell you from this list of the 42 individuals who have died, a number of them died of something else, but they had COVID, and the COVID stressed them to the point where they couldn’t breathe, for instance. So, they may have had a heart attack, but because of the COVID, couldn’t breathe,” the county judge added.

In the example above, the judge said, the death would be listed as a COVID-19 death, possibly citing underlying conditions.

Owens said an individual’s attending physician can make the determination that a person died of COVID, as can the county’s four justices of the peace, working under the auspices of the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“If a person dies in the intensive care unit, they still have to have a death certificate, and the justices of the peace work with the doctors, who can say, ‘This is what this person died of,’” Owens said.

Determining the death is process, Owens said.

“It’s a process, and it’s really complicated, because like I said earlier, if the person had cancer or a heart attack and was COVID positive, what, exactly, did he die of?” he said.

Some local confusion arose, Owens said, when 14 individuals were recently added all at once to the list of the county’s COVID-19 deaths.

“We did not have 14 people die all of a sudden yesterday. For example, we were at 24 deaths on July 21, and we had six people die that we got information on between July 21 and July 23. On July 23, there was another report, and between July 23 and July 24, we had eight people, over two days,” Owens said.

“On July 21 and July 22, we had six people. On July 25, up until right now, we had seven,” he added.

He said the problem with publicizing the number of COVID-19 deaths is that the deaths must first be confirmed as such.

Once someone dies in the hospital, and that individual’s attending physician determines he or she died of COVID-19, the information is then reported to the local health authority, Dr. J.J. Gutierrez, and to the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS).

Gutierrez then also makes a report of the death to the TDSHS, Owens said.

Owens said the process sometimes puts him between a rock and a hard place.

“It’s very complicated, and people get mad, saying we’re not reporting, and I can report that there are so many people dead, but right now, I can’t tell you if they’re COVID-19 related,” Owens said.

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