The family of a woman who died last week at a Saint John nursing home where there's a COVID-19 outbreak has won their fight to have her death deemed COVID-related.
Joan Davis, 79, died last Thursday at the Shannex Tucker Hall nursing home, Lily Court memory care unit, 16 days after testing positive for the respiratory disease.
Her cause of death was originally listed as stomach cancer.
But Public Health reviewed her case and on Wednesday reclassified her death as COVID-related — the 15th in the province since the pandemic began in March, said her son, Peter Lewis.
"I feel relieved," he said. "I feel that now my family can grieve."
The review came after Lewis, a Rothesay town councillor, and Davis's younger brother, Trevor Jones, a retired Saint John police officer, alleged in Facebook posts Sunday and in media reports Monday that her death — and possibly others — were being misrepresented as non-COVID-related either by Public Health or Shannex in an attempt to keep COVID death numbers low.
Public Health announced two deaths on Wednesday. A person in their 70s in the Saint John region, Zone 2, and a person in their 70s in the Edmundston region, Zone 4, both died "as a result of underlying complications including COVID-19," according to a news release.
The person in Saint John was a resident of the Tucker Hall nursing home, Lily Court unit, the release said.
Asked whether this was a new death, Public Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane described it as "recent." He declined to comment further, citing confidentiality.
Macfarlane did say the person was previously documented on the New Brunswick COVID-19 dashboard as a recovered case, not as a non-COVID-19-related death.
If a person who tests positive for COVID-19 recovers from the disease and later dies from something else, they are included in the recovered category, he said. A person is considered recovered 14 days after testing positive.
The dashboard has since been updated to reflect Davis's change in status and the new death in Edmundston. It now shows 16 COVID-related deaths since the pandemic began in March.
It also shows one non-COVID-19-related death. This Shannex resident, who died in December, had previously tested positive, but did not die from the disease.
In these types of cases, the person is still sick with COVID, but something else is determined to be the cause of death.
Lewis said the public response to the family's Facebook posts was "overwhelming."
"I just can't even believe how many people supported us … in trying to get the information out there."
He has also heard from the loved ones of three other nursing home residents who died — two of them during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which was declared on Nov. 20 — asking how they can find out whether they too died from COVID, he said.
"I said, 'You have every right to ask for the information from the Shannex.' "
The death certificate a family receives from a funeral home does not list a cause of death, but the registration of death the funeral home sends to Fredericton does and a family can request a copy of this from the province "with just cause," he said.
Decision reversed after consult
Lewis said a Public Health official called him on Monday morning and told him they were going to review the paperwork in his mother's case and conduct further interviews with Shannex management and nurses.
"They had to consult. It wasn't really, I guess, their decision. They had to consult with the [attending] doctor, they had to consult with the Shannex staff, and it would be a group decision on what would happen."
When a COVID-positive resident dies at a long-term care facility and Public Health officials aren't onsite, they're "advised by the doctor's certificate on how the patient passed and then they make their decision on how they want to treat that," he said.
Macfarlane said he could not discuss a specific case because of confidentiality, but noted that "sometimes it takes longer to determine the cause, if it's COVID-19 or related.
"Sometimes it takes consultations with other medical professionals and could take longer than usual."
When CBC pointed out consultations had already occurred and a cause of death was already listed prior to the family speaking out and their Facebook posts being shared hundreds of times, Macfarlane replied: "At times, discussions continue.
"Medical officials have the right to review their cases."
Lewis, who blamed Public Health in his Facebook post for the "unjust decision" to label his mother's cause of death as cancer, has now shifted his focus to Shannex.
"Look, corporations are all about profit," he said. "And you know what, if that's what happened, then this will fix it."
Shannex confirmed in a news release Wednesday night that one of the Lily Court deaths it had reported on Sunday "has now been determined to be a death as a result of underlying complications including COVID-19."
Company spokesperson Isabelle Landry described Lewis's comments as "unfortunate."
"The cause of death is determined by the attending physician in collaboration with Public Health," she said in an emailed statement.
Lewis stressed he has no issues with the health-care staff. "The nurses and the extramural and everybody that was in that COVID unit was working hard and positively fabulous people. Just unbelievable. I don't even understand how they could do that job. It was just so challenging."
Twenty-two days of self-isolation after getting caught up in a so-called superspreader dinner theatre event in Saint John in November helped him appreciate just how serious COVID is, he said.
Four of the 10 people at his table tested positive in the days after the event, and with each new diagnosis, his 14-day isolation period started anew.
"The real eye-opener was how it affects businesses," said Lewis, noting how cases confirmed after the dinner theatre event led to the shutdown of several large employers.
"It's so far-reaching, and so serious that when my mom passed of COVID-19, I thought it was … a very serious event."
'Slap in the face'
Having his mother's cause of death classified as cancer felt like "a slap in the face" to the family, he said, "because it wasn't right. Cancer was not what killed her."
Within 48 hours of her COVID diagnosis, his mother went from being a "very vibrant lady" to "laying in bed, unable to speak, eat and even make eye contact," he said.
"Cancer doesn't do that to people."
In addition, he was in touch with the charge nurse two to three times every day while his mother was in the COVID unit, "and not once did the nurse mention to me that she was dying of cancer," he said.
"It was always, you know, 'The COVID's kicking in.' 'The COVID's grabbing a hold.' 'It's really affecting your mom's dementia.' … 'We need to medicate her because she's getting a rattle in her lungs.'"
In the four days following his mother's death, he said he had numerous conversations with a Shannex official and exchanged several emails, but "not once did the representative tell me that my mom had died from cancer."
"I know if Mom was here and she could speak about the situation, she would want me to get it straightened out. And that is what I did."