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A CLOSER LOOK: coroners and COVID-19; the grim reality of dealing with death

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ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — “It’s been unreal,” said Sebastian County Coroner Kenneth Hobbs responding to the handling of COVID-19 cases over the past 10 months.

“The cases come in and out of the hospitals so fast; I’m trying to just catch up on my paperwork,” he said.

Sebastian County, a population of about 127,000 according to census data, is located in central Arkansas’ western edge. It’s adjacent to two Oklahoma counties: LeFlore to the south and Sequoyah to the north.

Hobbs said, “most [cases] are coming out of Oklahoma because the smaller areas don’t have the capacity [for medical treatment.” According to Hobbs, patients from Oklahoma are transferred to Mercy Hospital Fort Smith, Baptist Health-Van Buren, or Baptist Health-Fort Smith.

The reason the numbers are high for Arkansas is because of the Oklahomans who have been hospitalized here, said Hobbs.

“I’m at 1,582 overall deaths for the year which is up 208 from this same date last year. My office has had 89 reported Covid-19 related deaths. Not all are from our county.”

October 27, 2020, Hobbs email to KNWA/FOX24

On December 18, 2019, Sebastian County had 1,648 deaths, today there are 1,923 — an additional 275 — and 154 are listed as COVID-19-related.

Staggering is how Hobbs described virus deaths coming from different counties and Oklahoma. Currently, he has deaths from Crawford County, Oklahoma, Logan County, Arkansas, and three from Mena in Polk County, Arkansas.

Several people in their 90s are listed as COVID-related deaths. “Maybe COVID kicked it in gear for their deaths and it was a contributing cause,” said Hobbs. However, that’s not always the case as some people did not have underlying conditions prior to their death. “I knew a man, knew him for a lot of years, 55, got COVID, and he died from it.”

A majority of deaths are white males, according to Hobbs’ documentation.
He read page 128: 71, white male, 78, white male, 78, white female, 53, white male, 76 white male. “It goes on and on. I’d say about 70% of the deaths have been white males, at least what’s been reported to my office, and it may be more.”

Thursday night, Hobbs was glad to get a full night’s sleep, for all the middle-of-night shifts he’s worked that have become routine.

Currently, he’s averaging five deaths a day, and if it stays that way that means another 65 lives taken by the end of the year. But, they’re not all COVID-19, “unfortunately a young man took his life this week, he was 16, and a seven-month-old just died.”

At 64, Hobbs admits he’s slowed down a bit, but will still do the job. Speaking for coroners as a collective group, “we’re being overworked, we’re not complaining, but the workload ….” as he trailed off on his comment.

In addition to some of Oklahoma’s COVID-19 deaths, Hobbs has documented deaths in five other counties, in addition to Sebastian County. Logan, to the east; Scott and Polk, both to the south, Crawford to the north and Franklin to the northeast.

Arkansas’ 75 counties. Source: Geology.com

WASHINGTON & BENTON COUNTIES, CORONER COVID-19 DATA

In Arkansas’ northwest corridor, Washington and Benton County coroners have documented 356 COVID-19-related deaths from September 1 to December 16.

Washington County Coroner Roger Morris has handled a total of 270 COVID-related deaths in the past 10 months, 175 are from September to Wednesday, December 16.

  • September: 41
  • October: 48
  • November: 53
  • December 1-16: 33

Benton County Coroner Daniel Oxford also has about 270 COVID-19-related deaths from May 22 through December 16.

  • May: 5
  • June: 39
  • July: 31
  • August: 13
  • September: 25
  • October: 47
  • November: 73
  • December 1-16: 36

Hispanic, Pacific Islander and Filipino deaths have totaled around 60 from May to mid-December. The month with the highest reported deaths was June with 27, followed by 10 in July.

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