Whenever the Minnesota Department of Health receives a notification of a death suspected to be caused by COVID-19, Rich Danila writes the corresponding data in a notebook.
Nearly 20 months after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Danila, the Minnesota Department of Health’s deputy state epidemiologist, filled 18 of those notebooks with details of more than 8,500 COVID deaths.
During the first year of the pandemic, before the advent of vaccines, the vast majority of deaths occurred in the elderly and people with serious underlying medical conditions.
Health officials now most often investigate deaths when people are younger and relatively healthy. Usually they have one thing in common – they are not vaccinated.
“These deaths are preventative and should not happen,” Danila said. “Many of the more recent deaths of young people – in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s – are people who are not medically vulnerable.”
‘ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SOULS’
Gina Gallikson, a 26-year-old paramedic from Wabasso, was one of those who died from COVID-19.
Gallixon became ill just after her 26th birthday and has been away from work since the start of the pandemic, where she worked all night and overtime to take care of vulnerable people.
“Her whole heart was in caring for (her patients),” her sister Jennifer said. “They looked like her family.”
She experienced pneumonia symptoms about a week after first feeling unwell and died at home just before 2 a.m. on April 19, when vaccines became widely available.
“It went so fast,” Jennifer said.
Gallixon had not yet been vaccinated but was planning to do so. Acute respiratory distress, pneumonia and COVID-19 are listed on the death certificate as the cause of her death.
She did not have any serious illnesses that contributed to her death.
Her sister described her as a selfless person with an infectious smile who loves her family unconditionally.
“She was one of the most beautiful souls,” Jennifer said.
Gina was engaged for several years and was planning to set a wedding date when she contracted COVID-19. She just bought a house with her fiancé and was trying to get a GED.
WHAT THE DATA SHOWS
During 2020, the average age of deaths from COVID-19 was about 83 years. In 2021, this average age dropped by almost a decade to about 74 years.
At the onset of the pandemic, almost all of those who died were elderly or had multiple comorbidities that put them at serious risk of serious infections. This year, about 23% did not list any underlying conditions that contributed to the death of COVID-19.
Minnesota began vaccinating elderly and vulnerable adults in late 2020. By last spring, all adults could be vaccinated, and by summer, teenagers were eligible for the vaccine.
As of Thursday, 73 percent of eligible residents have received at least one injection. About 62 percent of the entire population of the state received at least one dose of the vaccine.
But an analysis of vaccination reports by Pioneer Press shows rates vary significantly by county. Vaccinations are often lowest in rural districts with fewer people, where the impact of a pandemic may be harder to see.
These are the very rural districts that have some of the highest COVID-19 death rates per capita.
“The vast majority of people with vaccine status who die are not vaccinated,” said Elizabeth Schiffman, co-leader of the COVID-19 Death Tracking Team at the State Department of Health.
But not everyone is vaccinated. State health officials say 331 fully vaccinated Minnesotans were among the approximately 3,200 who have died from COVID-19 this year.
However, the true figure is not entirely clear due to limited information released by government health officials.
There is growing frustration among healthcare providers with unvaccinated patients, Schiffman said. “In fact, we can see that it is documented right in the medical record – the patient is not vaccinated.”
Health officials are also documenting why people who died from COVID-19 did not receive the vaccine.
“There is a wide variety of reasons for not vaccinating,” said Leslie Kollman, co-leader of the COVID-19 mortality tracking team at the State Department of Health. “They didn’t want to, they don’t believe it, they didn’t have time, they don’t believe things.”
Vaccination status is not included on death records publicly available from the State Civil Registry Office. But health officials from the COVID-19 mortality group have access to other databases that indicate whether someone has been vaccinated.
Danila, a deputy state epidemiologist, added that the death tracking team has also recorded deaths of patients who abandoned proven treatments such as monoclonal antibodies and the antiviral remdesivir.
“But until the last breath, they insisted on things like ivermectin or vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc,” Danila said. “Over the past six to eight weeks, we’ve seen more and more of this in medical records.”
HOW DEATH IS CLASSIFIED
To be included on the Minnesota COVID-19 death toll, deaths must meet several standards investigated by the Mortality Panel. Among them, COVID-19, listed on the death certificate as the main cause of death, and a positive test for COVID-19.
Deaths where there is a suspicion of coronavirus infection, even on a death certificate but never confirmed, are considered “likely” by state health officials.
Danila believes that the work of his team is more thorough and accurate than in any other state of the country. Every fatal case is being investigated.
“There is no other state in the country that invests as much resources into its resources as we do,” he said. “Our Minnesota data is probably the most accurate in the country.”
He ridiculed accusations that the death rate was somehow inflated or manipulated.
“This is the worst pandemic in the past 100 years,” Danila said. “We don’t have to give up death.”
But there are times when the message of death from COVID-19 is delayed. This is usually due to incomplete information or delays in the submission of certain entries by those who originally dealt with the death.
“Perhaps we will be informed of the deaths six months after they happened and then we will investigate them as soon as we can,” Schiffman said. “I think the big delay is waiting for information and making sure we have all the details.”
There are increasingly positive signs that the fourth wave of coronavirus cases in Minnesota, now more than two months old, could begin to decline. But deaths may not slow down right away.
Mortality is considered a lagging indicator of a spike and usually peaks several weeks or months after the spike in incidence. Deaths from COVID-19 were higher in early October than at nearly any time in 2021, with the exception of January, when the state’s worst spike subsided.
Danila, Schiffman, and Kollman are hoping this will be the last spike in COVID-19 deaths. But they are concerned about avoiding vaccinations, avoiding mitigating measures such as wearing masks, and a general anti-scientific attitude in many communities could open the state to a new surge.
“Stop thinking it’s over,” Kollman said. “I think this is a huge problem for many communities. This life returns to normal when it is not. “
Danila adds that many of the deaths that officials are now investigating could have been prevented.
“Everyone is a person whom someone loved and cared about and who did not have to die,” Danila said. “It’s hard to see how it goes on like this.”