‘Un­prece­dented,’ and not all COVID: County’s 2020 deaths top 10,000

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY ELVIA MALAGÓN, STAFF REPORTER emalagón@sun­times.com | @Elvi­aMalagon Con­tribut­ing: David Struett. Elvia Malagón’s re­port­ing on so­cial jus­tice and in­come in­equal­ity is made pos­si­ble by a grant from the Chicago Com­mu­nity Trust.

The Cook County med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice is pre­par­ing for its dead­li­est year in his­tory, al­ready hav­ing in­ves­ti­gated more than 10,000 deaths.

Stand­ing out­side the med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice, Cook County Board Pres­i­dent Toni Preck­win­kle said this year’s case load is “ab­so­lutely un­prece­dented.”

Since the of­fice was es­tab­lished in 1976, it has only ex­ceeded 10,000 an­nual death in­ves­ti­ga­tions in three years in the late 1970s.

The county’s dead­li­est year was 1977, when pathol­o­gists ex­am­ined 10,654 deaths. With four months left in 2020, Preck­win­kle ex­pects the tally to surge past that mark soon.

“These num­bers point to a harsh re­al­ity as we come closer to the end of 2020. And once again, the bur­den is be­ing felt dis­pro­por­tion­ately in com­mu­ni­ties of color,” Preck­win­kle said. “While a quar­ter of our county’s pop­u­la­tion is African Amer­i­can — about 24% — close to 43% of the cases this of­fice sees are African Amer­i­can res­i­dents.”

Black and Latino res­i­dents make up 94% of the homi­cides the of­fice has in­ves­ti­gated, Preck­win­kle said.

Lack of ac­cess to nu­tri­tious foods and qual­ity health care also con­trib­uted to the dis­par­i­ties as many of the deaths oc­curred in un­der­served com­mu­ni­ties.

“As a com­mu­nity, we must do bet­ter,” Preck­win­kle said. “These aren’t just names on a page, these are our neigh­bors, our friends, our fam­ily.”

In to­tal, the med­i­cal ex­am­iner in­ves­ti­gated 6,274 deaths in 2019, Preck­win­kle said. That means the county has al­ready seen 3,000 more cases than it did all of last year with four months re­main­ing in the year.

The county ex­ceeded the 10,000 mark early Mon­day when a 46-yearold man was pro­nounced dead in the 6400 block of South Promon­tory Drive near the lake­front and the Jack­son Park Yacht Club, ac­cord­ing to the med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice.

Chicago po­lice were called to the area about 9 p.m. Sun­day af­ter the 46-year-old man, who had been pulling in his boat, couldn’t be found. He was later found in the wa­ter and taken to the Univer­sity of Chicago Med­i­cal Cen­ter, where he was pro­nounced dead early Mon­day, po­lice said.

More than half of this year’s deaths were re­lated to COVID-19 — 5,030 as of Wed­nes­day, ac­cord­ing to the med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice. Of those cases, 1,675 of the peo­ple who have died were Black.

But Dr. Ponni Arunk­u­mar, the chief med­i­cal ex­am­iner, said the coro­n­avirus pan­demic is not the sole cause of the surge.

So far this year, at least 594 res­i­dents have died in homi­cides, and 1,566 were con­firmed or pend­ing opi­oid cases, Preck­win­kle said. An­other 282 deaths were de­ter­mined to be sui­cides. Last year, the of­fice han­dled 675 homi­cides, 1,266 opi­oid over­dosere­lated deaths and 477 sui­cides.

Arunk­u­mar said many of the deaths are pre­ventable, such as opi­oid-re­lated deaths, with bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion about the dan­ger of the drugs.

The med­i­cal ex­am­iner said the in­crease in fa­tal­i­ties over pre­vi­ous years is even more trou­bling be­cause in the late 1970s, the of­fice had a larger ju­ris­dic­tion and saw more nat­u­ral deaths than it does to­day.

“To­day our scope is much more fo­cused, which makes present­day num­bers more jaw drop­ping,” Arunk­u­mar said. “If for the remainder of 2020, our case load sta­bi­lized to the lev­els we have ex­pe­ri­enced over the last sev­eral years, we would still dou­ble last year’s en­tire case load.”

The med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice hasn’t hired ad­di­tional staff, though for a pe­riod of time it did re­ceive as­sis­tance from Na­tional Guard troops, said Natalia Derevyanny, a spokes­woman for the of­fice. The of­fice cur­rently has 100 em­ploy­ees.

Since April, the med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice has used a ware­house as a surge cen­ter to deal with the ad­di­tional bod­ies, but that space has not reached its ca­pac­ity yet, she said.

Among the types of deaths the Cook County med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice in­ves­ti­gates are those tied to crim­i­nal acts, sui­cides, ac­ci­dents, un­ex­pected deaths and sus­pi­cious deaths.

PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES FILE

Dr. Ponni Arunk­u­mar and Cook County Board Pres­i­dent Toni Preck­win­kle at a press con­fer­ence in July.

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