Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Blame virus for care home residents death, family says

When the resident of an Auckland dementia care home at the centre of a Covid-19 cluster died on Thursday – one day after she was diagnosed with the virus and taken to hospital – health officials announced that she succumbed to a non-Covid-related condition.

But that is disingenuous, her family says.

“We want the record to be set straight,” a family member told the Weekend Herald. “It’s frustrating. It’s not actually what happened.

“Yes, she was frail, she was old. Yes, she was nearing the end. But she was still functioning. If she hadn’t contracted Covid, she wouldn’t be in hospital and she wouldn’t have succumbed. That was just literally the last nail in the coffin.”

Shanti Kumari would have turned 87 next week.

She was a loving mother of five and grandmother of 11 who moved to Auckland from Fiji two decades ago to dote on her grandchildren. Four of them grew up to be doctors, another three dentists.

“She just lived for her family,” said the family member, a healthcare professional who asked not to be identified by name.

She is one of 15 residents and four staff at Edmonton Meadows Care Home in Henderson who have tested positive for Covid-19 over the past week – the first care home cluster of the Delta outbreak that has kept Auckland under lockdown for nearly three months.

Kumari began having health issues, including dementia, around 2015 and she moved to Edmonton Meadows in 2019 with her husband, who died a few months later. Recently she has been on end-of-life care at the facility, where the family said they expected her to die “slowly and peacefully” in the near future.

“Look, maybe [she would have died] a few weeks down the track but not in two days,” the family representative said. “She was going downhill, but not that fast.”

The family were quite shocked when they learned of the cluster last week, but were also aware the Delta variant of Covid-19 is difficult to contend with. They took solace Kumari had been vaccinated months earlier.

“We’re not blaming them for the death,” the family representative said, although he would like to see a review carried out to determine how the cluster got a foothold in the home. “It is what it is. We just want the correct reporting.”

If she was sent to the hospital for end-of-life care instead of for Covid-19, as health officials reported, that wasn’t something the family authorised, they said.

“The communication hasn’t been the best,” he added.

Responding to questions from the Herald, the Ministry of Health said in a statement it has “considerable sympathy with the family in this situation”.

“The information about cause of death was provided by the DHB based on the advice of the treating clinician,” the statement said. “Covid-19 was not the primary cause of death and we are not able to say to what extent it may have contributed to this person passing away.”

Edmonton Meadows deferred comment to the Ministry of Health.

University of Otago epidemiology professor Michael Baker said the way the death was reported by the hospital isn’t uncommon and is likely the result of an antiquated coding system.

“This is a weakness in our coding system that says you can only die of one thing,” he explained. “The system hasn’t changed much in 100 years and it defaults to the underlying condition.”

A more common example, Baker said, is influenza deaths. About 500 people die each year in New Zealand after contracting influenza. But only 5 to 10 per cent of those are recorded as influenza deaths because most of the patients had underlying conditions that made them vulnerable to infections.

But there are multiple reporting systems, Baker said, and he believes it will most likely eventually be reported to the World Health Organisation as Covid-related.

“This is all down to reporting conventions,” he added. “I wouldn’t say it’s in any way sinister.

“There are so many issues about how they are counted.”

Kumari’s family said she was first tested for Covid-19 last Friday, October 29, and it came back negative.

“She contracted Covid, we think, on Tuesday and was diagnosed on Wednesday,” the family representative said.

With the care home under lockdown, the family had hoped to video chat with her on Tuesday or Wednesday but the care home wasn’t able to make it happen, he said. She was transferred to North Shore Hospital on Wednesday evening and died around 10am on Thursday.

“She deteriorated quite quickly,” the family member said, explaining that her oxygen saturation levels dropped from 95 per cent when she arrived at hospital to around 70 to 75 per cent the next morning.

“The hospital let us Zoom in after she passed away.”

She died alone, but because of her dementia she likely wouldn’t have been aware of her surroundings, he said.

She was cremated that afternoon without an autopsy, which Baker said would be the normal course of action for someone with an underlying condition.

“Her family was her life,” the family representative repeated, adding that she will also be remembered for her mastery in the kitchen and the joy she took from feeding her children and grandchildren.

He also hopes she be remembered, at least by the agencies that cared for her, as one of New Zealand’s small number of Covid-19 tragedies.

The family are coming forward for closure, he said, but also “to make sure this happens to no one else’s mother/ grandmother or great-grandmother”.

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