Humboldt County Sheriff Billy Honsal speaking via Zoom during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. | Screenshot.


The death of a 38-year-old Humboldt County man last week may or may not have been the direct result of COVID-19, Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal revealed during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. 

“He did have underlying conditions,” Honsal said of the unidentified man. “However, he was fairly healthy. The case is still under investigation. The cause and manner of death has not been decided.”

The sheriff, who also serves as the county coroner and public administrator, said that the man’s death, which was reported Monday as the county’s ninth COVID-related fatality, was handled by the county’s Coroner-Public Administrator Bureau. “At the autopsy … he did test positive,” Honsal said. He added that his office will release as much information as it possibly can while protecting people’s privacy rights. 

The absence of a clear cause of death at this point highlights the increasingly politicized attitudes toward the pandemic in the United States and here in Humboldt County. Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass was hesitant as she broached the topic during Tuesday’s meeting. 

“I’m not sure how to ask this question,” she began. Bass acknowledged that death is always sad, regardless of the person’s age, “but the question that’s come up when a death is listed as COVID, sometimes, from what I’ve heard, someone may have actually died from let’s say a heart attack, but it gets chalked up as a COVID death.” She asked Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich whether there is a protocol for reporting COVID-related deaths.

“It’s problematic,” Frankovich responded. “Right now all we’re able to do is if they’re positive [for COVID-19] at the time of death, we report positive. The death certificate may list that as the immediate or a contributing cause. Sometimes it’s difficult to know, based on underlying health conditions. … I agree, it’s a little murky.”

While some have latched onto such acknowledged ambiguities to argue that the nation’s official COVID-19 death tally — 220,000 and counting — has been artificially inflated, researchers and public health officials have concluded that the opposite is almost certainly true.

For example, Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the Washington Post in a story published Tuesday, “The number of people dying from this pandemic is higher than we think.”

His assessment comes in the context of studies showing the number of excess deaths in the United States this year compared to normal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic has left about 285,000 more people dead across the country than would be expected in a typical year.

The Post explains:

Outside analyses, including some by The Washington Post and researchers at Yale University, have found two main causes for excess deaths. Many probably were the result of covid-19, although they were not recorded that way on death certificates. Others are probably the result of deaths at home or in nursing homes from heart attacks, diabetes, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease, among people afraid to seek care in hospitals or unable to get it.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said Monday’s reported death of “a Humboldt County resident in their 30s” who tested positive for COVID-19 “has caused probably more phone calls than the other eight combined,” with many of the calls coming from concerned young people.

Bohn asked county officials, including Frankovich and Honsal, whether they could “rule something out” as a cause of death without violating privacy laws — “because this has caused quite an uproar, even in school systems.”

That’s when Honsal revealed the sex and age of the man who died and promised to reveal more information as the investigation into his cause of death proceeds. 

Frankovich noted that younger adults are now one of the county’s larger age groups in terms of positive cases. “People in this age group do die of COVID,” she said. “It’s a smaller percentage, but it’s important for people of all ages to understand the risk of death. And we’re seeing more and more long-term health impacts. We don’t really understand the full health implications of this virus yet.”

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson agreed, noting the growing concern that insurance companies could eventually consider COVID-19 infections a pre-existing condition, affecting both rates and coverage. “This could follow you for the rest of your life,” he said.