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Q&A: Peoria County Coroner on Pandemic's Local Toll

Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood
Tim Shelley
Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood

More than 3,400 Peoria County residents died in 2020. That’s nearly 15% more than the previous year. COVID-19 was a contributing factor – but not the only factor.

Kristin McHugh and Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood discuss the numbers and the pandemic’s toll on his office.

Jamie Harwood: We did have more deaths in 2020 than we did in 2019. And there's two reasons. When we look at our population as a whole, it's aging. And so, if we have a scale of people over the age of 65 to under, we have more people over age 65 with health conditions who are going to pass away. And then we had more COVID-related deaths that played into that number as well by far true.

Kristin McHugh: Have you been able to extrapolate from those numbers, whether or not certain populations were disproportionately affected by COVID-19?

Harwood: I know nationwide, and the numbers will suggest that it's in the lower socioeconomic population. I've not seen that disparity here in Peoria, per se.

McHugh: The CDC has said that COVID-19 in 2020 was in fact the third leading cause of death nationwide behind heart disease and cancer. Do we know where COVID is in Peoria County in terms of the number of deaths in 2020?

Harwood: We'd probably say it's following the CDC trend nationwide with heart disease, cancer deaths, and then COVID. In Peoria County, I've been very, very particular about the death certificate data. Every single COVID case that originated in Peoria County, we actually go through the medical record of the decedent. What did cause their death? And a lot of the population who have succumbed to COVID had a multitude of different comorbid conditions. One of the biggest things that we're seeing now and even back in December and November of last year, is obesity is a really big risk factor and liver disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, COPD, heart failure is a big one as well or a chronic asthma.

McHugh: At one point, you deployed a refrigerated truck at the coroner's office as COVID deaths were rising. Was your office really that overwhelmed?

Harwood: Yes. It's quite a process and I'll try to take you through this in a short fashion. When someone passes away, like say in the hospital, and they've come from Streator – let's just make this example. Where are they going to go? They're going to go to the hospital morgue. And then the hospital is going to work with the family about getting a funeral home, but now there's no finances for a funeral home. So now days go by. Now we're at day three, day four, day, five, day six of them being in the hospital morgue because nobody has any money and so the person sits there. Well, eight to 10 more people died in that six days. And so now that morgue is getting to a capacity. Not generally because of a lack of capacities, [but] because the capacity was surged because of these number of deaths that were occurring and then there was nowhere to put people. And that's the sad part about it. In everyday first world society we just believe that people have money for funerals, and they don't.

McHugh: Are there any lessons that you and your staff have learned that will change the way and have changed the way that you operate?

Harwood: Coming into it, we did have a fatality management plan in place. It was dated. What we did learn was that building relationships makes a huge difference. And we have a very strong working relationship with the funeral homes here in Peoria County, and as well as the Tri-County I can say, and the regional hospitals here [OSF] St. Francis and UnityPoint. It was very easy for me, us to make a few phone calls with the hospitals to get our plan in place. And we collaborated that plan very, very well. I can't imagine anything that we would change moving forward. I think we would focus and run on the same direction that we did because everything worked so incredibly well.

McHugh: Did you imagine a year ago that we would still be wearing masks and COVID-19 would still be affecting our lives greatly every day?

Harwood: I'm not surprised that we're still dealing with it, to be honest. You know, back in this time last year we were fighting for testing, right? And now we have an amplitude of vaccines. It's amazing what research and scientists have done in just that short year to go from how are we going to get tested to now we have vaccines everywhere, which is amazing. I think we need to move forward, quite frankly. And we need to move forward obviously in somewhat of a conservative manner, but this is never gonna go away — much like HIV, much like hepatitis, much like tuberculosis. We just need to make sure that next year we have a vaccine like the flu vaccine, like the pneumonia vaccine. This is not going to go away so we need to prepare for it not to go away and we need to get back to living.

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Kristin McHugh is an experienced radio journalist and nonprofit manager. Most recently, she served as executive director of the Peoria Area World Affairs Council.