(CBS4) – Another Colorado coroner — this time in La Plata County — is challenging the way local and state health departments have been attributing deaths to COVID-19. It follows the death of a great-grandfather who had most recently tested “inconclusive” for the virus this month.

(credit: Kujath family)

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“I guess we just have a different opinion,” said La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith in an interview with CBS4.

The difference of opinion arose out of the May 9 death of Robert Kujath, 80, who died at his home in southern Colorado after years of declining health. The coroner and Kujath’s family said he had suffered strokes, heart disease and had been limited to a wheelchair for years.

In recent weeks, while hospitalized in Durango, Kujath had tested positive for coronavirus although those around him say it was a mild case with no symptoms. After he was released from the hospital and returned home, Kujath was tested for a second time. This time the test came back as inconclusive. Kujath passed away at about the same time that the second test result was returned.

Smith says she listed Kujath’s cause of death as congestive heart failure, but also noted on the death certificate the earlier positive COVID-19 test.

(credit: San Juan County)

“He passed away from medical issues, not COVID problems,” said Smith. “He didn’t have a positive when he passed away.”

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She said her assessment was that COVID-19 played no part in Kujath’s passing, so she was surprised to initially see local health authorities list it differently.

The San Juan Basin Public Health agency had initially listed Kujath’s death as the county’s first coronavirus death on its official website, based on the earlier positive test.

CBS4 contacted the San Juan Basin Public Health agency about why someone who most recently tested inconclusive would qualify as a COVID-19 death. A spokeswoman for the office explained that categorization was in step with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and federal guidelines that were in effect at the time, however she said the agency’s website was updated on Monday to reflect zero direct deaths from COVID-19 and that Kujath’s death was now listed as a death that occurred “among” people who have had the virus. She said the change was made to align the county website with new state health department definitions that were established Friday. Liane Jollon, Executive Director of San Juan Basin Public Health said, “SJBPH has made changes to its data dashboard to reflect CDPHE’s new death reporting data points and definitions on Monday, 5/18, one business day after CDPHE’s changes.”

(credit: San Juan County)

Scott Kujath, Robert Kujath’s son, believed that initially reporting his father’s death as due to COVID-19 was not accurate.

“That’s not what he died from,” said Scott. “We don’t need to operate out of fear.”

After learning of the local health department’s website changes, Scott Kujath told CBS4 he was “very glad they made the needed change. Just want accurate information.”

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Brian Maass