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I-Team: Most Palm Beach County COVID deaths cannot be attributed to COVID alone

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A healthcare worker high-fives a patient in the Covid-19 Unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, July 2, 2020. - Despite its renowned medical center with the largest agglomeration of hospitals and research laboratories in the world, Houston is on the verge of being overwhelmed by cases of coronavirus exploding in Texas. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USETO GO WITH AFP STORY by Julia Benarrous: "Covid-19: Houston's hospital system underwater" (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images)

An analysis of Palm Beach County Medical Examiner records finds most of the county's deaths labeled as COVID fatalities cannot be attributed to COVID-19 alone.

Many of them involved comorbidity like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, dementia, and more.

The Medical Examiner's office provided the CBS12 News I-Team with an updated list of 658 deaths the county considers "COVID deaths."

This list removed the eight erroneous deaths the I-Team discovered last week, and added dozens more new cases.

Of the 658 cases, just 86 were listed as "COVID-19 pneumonia" deaths without any contributing causes.

Three were "COVID-19 respiratory infection" deaths without any contributing causes.

In 94 cases, the individual died of a combination of COVID-19 infection, pneumonia, and respiratory infection/failure, without any other contributing causes.

The above cases (COVID-19 pneumonia only, COVID-19 respiratory infection only, and a combination of COVID-19 pneumonia and respiratory infection) account for about 27 percent of all Palm Beach County COVID deaths.

All of the others involve various comorbidity.

The I-Team found in 116 cases, the individual had three or more serious health conditions in addition to a COVID-19 infection listed as a cause or contributing cause of death.

For example, a 94-year-old woman who suffered from Type 2 Diabetes, Atrial Fibrillation, and Congestive Heart Failure has a cause of death listed as Accute Respiratory Failure and COVID-19 pneumonia.

In 92 cases, COVID-19 is listed as a contributory cause, but not the cause of death.

This includes a 72-year-old man who died from Sepsis and a Urinary Tract Infection, and has a COVID-19 infection listed as a "contributory cause."

The average age of Palm Beach County COVID deaths is 77.3 years old.

"The fact that it skews older and people with co-morbid conditions -- that's not surprising," said Dr. Terry Adirim, a Senior Associate Dean at the Florida Atlantic University College of Medicine.

Adirim is studying COVID-19 fatality data in Florida, and reviewed the same spreadsheet from the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner.

She said even though the average age of COVID death in Palm Beach County is 77, it doesn't mean young people should let their guard down.

"The more you are exposed the more likely you are to have serious illness, the more likely you are to die," she said. "And if you have been infected, even if you are younger, you are going to bring it home and bring it into your community as well."

Similarly, she said otherwise healthy people should not dismiss the COVID threat, just because most fatalities involve other health conditions.

"I would not recommend feeling so good about getting it," Adirim said. "We don't have a vaccine, it's a novel virus, and yes we are doing better treating it and yes it tends to affect people with comorbid conditions, but it's like playing Russian roulette. It's very likely you're not going to shoot yourself, and it's not likely you'll get seriously ill and die [from COVID] but that doesn't mean it won't happen."

We asked Adirim about the number of cases counted as COVID deaths that had the virus listed as a contributing cause, and not the cause of death.

She said it makes sense to count them toward COVID deaths because the virus may have made an otherwise non-fatal illness like a heart condition deadly.

"I think it's a red herring for people to say ah ha, they are counting it as a COVID death when they had all these other problems," she said.

"It's much more likely that we are under-counting COVID deaths, and that's something that we see in pandemics."