Attorney general says McLean County coroner improperly withheld information on COVID death near ISU
The McLean County coroner’s office improperly withheld information from the media related to one of the county’s first COVID-19 related deaths in 2020, according to a determination from the Illinois attorney general’s office.
The 73-year-old woman, who was found dead July 3, 2020, was the live-in housemother for an Illinois State University fraternity. At the time, Coroner Kathy Yoder declined to say whether the woman’s death was COVID-related. WGLT sought coroner’s records about the death through the Freedom of Information Act, but the county redacted key passages that would have confirmed or disproved any connection to COVID-19, citing privacy concerns.
WGLT appealed those redactions to the Illinois attorney general’s office, arguing the woman’s death was possibly related to a public health emergency and was therefore in the public’s interest. The woman’s death occurred at a time when COVID deaths were relatively uncommon in McLean County, and as the community grappled with ISU’s impact on transmission.
The attorney general’s Public Access Bureau sided with WGLT. In an Oct. 4 determination, it directed the coroner’s office and McLean County assistant state’s attorney Samantha Vasquez to release the unredacted records. (The attorney general’s review was delayed in part by a recent compromise of its computer network.)
The public interest outweighs the woman’s family’s privacy rights, the attorney general’s office wrote.
“Because (WGLT) intends to disseminate the information to the public concerning an ongoing public health crisis, his interest in obtaining the records is aligned with the public interest in obtaining information regarding this issue,” wrote Benjamin Silver, assistant attorney general with the Public Access Bureau.
The county released the unredacted records to WGLT on Thursday. They show the woman’s death was, in fact, related to COVID-19. Her cause of death is listed as “hemorrhagic bronchopneumonia and tracheobronchitis due to COVID-19 infection,” the records show.
The woman had recently traveled to Texas and, after returning to Normal, she developed a cough and other symptoms, records show. The woman was found dead during a wellness check July 3, 2020, inside the fraternity house, just a few blocks away from the ISU campus. The fraternity’s executive director confirmed the woman was the live-in housemother. Fraternity members were not living in the house at the time; ISU stopped all in-person instruction in March 2020 due to COVID, so fraternity members were no longer living in the house by July.
WGLT is not identifying the woman or the fraternity to protect her privacy.
Her death was the 14th reported in McLean County, according to a WGLT tally. As of this week, there have been 265 COVID-related deaths in McLean County since the start of the pandemic.