A Hartford baby who died in late March and who was initially called the youngest COVID death in the country by Gov. Ned Lamont, died from unexplained causes, the chief state’s medical examiner’s office announced late Friday afternoon.
Lung tissue from the 6½-week-old infant tested by the CDC confirmed a COVID-19 infection, but Chief State’s Medical Examiner James Gill said Friday not enough is known about how the virus impacts infants to know if it had any role in the baby’s death.
Gill listed “unsafe sleep in bassinet with soft bedding” as a reason for the sudden death.
“Infants may die from unexplained causes (e.g., SIDS) or from compromised sleeping conditions,” Gill said. “Therefore, when there is no definitive cause of death at autopsy, these deaths are typically certified as “Undetermined” or “Sudden Unexpected/Unexplained Death in Infancy.”
Gill said the CDC testing of lung tissue is to blame for why it took so long to determine a cause of death.
“There currently is limited medical information on how COVID-19 infection affects infants,” Gill said. “Therefore, the contributory role of COVID-19 infection remains unclear as the typical microscopic lung findings currently described in adult COVID-19 infections were not seen.”
Connecticut’s Child Advocate Sarah Egan said Friday the state sees approximately 20 (sometimes more) infants each year who die in an unsafe sleep environment/unsafe sleep conditions.
“An unsafe sleep environment can be a crib or bassinett with blankets or pillows, a young infant placed on their side or stomach to sleep, co-sleeping with adults for other children in a bed,” Egan said. “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be placed to sleep on their backs in their own sleep space with nothing else in the baby’s sleep area.”
Egan said young infants under 6 months of age are most at risk for unsafe sleep related death.
The child arrived unresponsive at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center on March 26 and died that afternoon, and a preliminary police investigation into the infant’s death found no signs of trauma, officials said.
All patients who die in Connecticut hospitals during the pandemic are being tested for the virus, regardless of their manner of death, so the infant was tested post-mortem and the results came back positive.
Gov. Lamont announced the baby’s death at a daily coronavirus briefing in late March and explicitly said the child’s death was caused by the virus. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin followed with his own emotional condolences to the family at his briefing an hour later and made the same implication.
“Probably the youngest person ever to die of COVID has died here in Connecticut,” Lamont said in announcing the baby’s death.
A press release Lamont’s office issued was more circumspect, saying”one of the youngest lives lost linked to COVID-19.”
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After questions were raised about Lamont’s statement, state officials retreated somewhat.
“We have our role. We have our job. The medical examiner has his job,” Connecticut State Epidemiologist Matthew Cartter said. “They’re very separate, and we count different things.”
The discrepancy stems from differences in the public reporting of COVID-19 cases between the state Department of Public Health and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Public health officials report daily the total number of people who have died and have tested positive for the virus, either before or after their deaths, Cartter said.
But only the medical examiner determines whether the virus or complications it caused actually led to each of those peoples deaths.
Cartter said for DPH’s purposes they define lab-confirmed COVID-19 associated deaths as anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19, tests positive on a COVID-19 test before or around the time of death.”
Because the baby tested positive, it was reported properly as a death connected to a positive COVID-19 test result, Cartter said.