SALEM — The family of a Wallowa County woman who died in December is disputing an Oregon Health Authority report that COVID-19 had anything to do with her death.
“Definitely not a COVID death,” said Josh Barnett, a Salem resident, of his mother, Theresa Malec, a former resident of Wallowa.
Malec died at Barnett’s home in Salem on Dec. 15, 2021, about two weeks after being diagnosed with liver cancer, Barnett said.
Barnett said there was a delay in the processing of her death certificate, and when he received it, he had some suspicion that her death might be called a COVID-19-related death.
On Jan. 27, OHA reported the death of a 70-year-old Wallowa County woman in its daily COVID-19 report. It said the woman died on Dec. 15 after a positive test on Aug. 4.
While OHA does not provide names on its report — and declined to confirm to the Chieftain if the death it reported was indeed Malec — Barnett said it’s not too difficult to make the assumption that the death in the report was his mother.
COVID-19, though, was not what killed her, he said, and the death certificate, which he provided to the Chieftain, shows that.
Contracted COVID, but defeated it
Barnett said his mother — who earlier in the year had defeated breast cancer before the unexpected liver cancer diagnosis — did indeed have COVID-19 in early August, but healed up only a couple days after receiving treatment.
“She got ivermectin and the (monoclonal antibody) infusion therapy. She was tired for a couple, three days,” he said.
Unprompted, Barnett also said Malec had not been vaccinated.
“She didn’t want to be vaccinated, but she did fight it naturally. She pulled through,” he said.
After overcoming COVID, Barnett said his mom had returned to much of her normal activities, and had been driving weekly to Walla Walla for treatment of her breast cancer before defeating it.
“They had given her the all clear on the breast cancer,” he said.
A new diagnosis
He said his mom sounded “really tired, winded,” in a phone conversation with her Nov. 29.
The next day, she was in the emergency room in Enterprise, originally given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Barnett said. She was LifeFlighted that night to Walla Walla, where it was determined, instead, the diagnosis was liver cancer.
She also initially tested positive for COVID while at Walla Walla, Barnett said, but that positive test was followed by two negative tests for the coronavirus — the second about a week later — which enabled Barnett to get into the hospital to visit her.
Barnett eventually took Malec to his Salem home where she was put on hospice and died about a week later.
The death certificate
The text on the death certificate made Barnett wonder if Malec would be classified as a COVID death.
The certificate — Barnett shared the document with the Chieftain and gave permission to publish the information in it — lists cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest and liver cell carcinoma as the causes of death.
Below that, it lists anxiety and breast cancer as significant conditions contributing to death.
Next to those, it states “history of covid 19 (2 negative tests).”
The funeral home that worked with Barnett said it had “never seen this on a death certificate, ever,” he said. “I had that feeling.”
His feeling was confirmed on Jan. 27 when OHA reported the 70-year-old Wallowa County woman’s death, which the Chieftain reported later that day. Barnett reached out the following day seeking to clarify the details.
Barnett said OHA was not forthcoming on details in an email response to his brother, Ty, who also had been seeking answers.
The OHA told the Chieftain it could not comment specifically on if Malec was listed as a COVID-19-related death, and that it “cannot provide any specific information related to a person’s death or death certificate,” according to Tim Heider, OHA public information officer.
The OHA did confirm to Ty Barnett in an email Josh Barnett shared with the Chieftain that it does use the phrase “COVID-19-related deaths” and that it could mean a person who had COVID-19 died, but that it wasn’t necessarily the cause.
“The deaths we report each day include people who died with COVID-like symptoms, which in some cases means that a person did not necessarily die as a result of COVID-19. Sometimes public health cannot determine (the) exact cause of death, so our data focuses on people who most likely or definitely had COVID-19 and died, based on local reports,” the email stated.
The OHA’s Investigative Guidelines state that any of the following are considered a COVID-19-related death:
• “Death of a confirmed or probable COVID-19 case within 60 days of the earliest available date among exposure to a confirmed case, onset of symptoms, or date of specimen collection for the first positive test;
• “Death from any cause in a hospitalized person during their hospital stay or in the 60 days following discharge and a COVID-19-positive laboratory diagnostic test at any time since 14 days prior to hospitalization; or
• “Death of someone with a COVID-19-specific ICD-10 code listed as a primary or contributing to it.”
Josh Barnett believes the numbers are inflated, and points to the fact that individuals who die directly from COVID or die of a different cause (but have COVID) are counted together.
“They’ve already admitted there is a difference (between) dying from COVID and dying with COVID,” he said. “I think they’ve been conflating the two on purpose to make the numbers look as bad as they can.
“I don’t believe the state has been giving the right answers for a long time.”
As for his family, he said he wants the truth — whatever it ends up being.
“I just want the record straight in terms of being honest,” he said. “...I don’t want my family or anybody else’s to be used, not as a pawn, but as ‘chalk up another line to it.’ … I know that OHA is saying it’s a COVID death when I was there the whole time. I know that’s 100% false.”
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