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Family claims woman named first COVID death, did not die from virus

Denied access to her for death rites is “an insult”, the family believes

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The children of a 54-year-old woman from Pago Pago whose family claims she was falsely designated as American Samoa’s first COVID-19 casualty, is calling on the LBJ Tropical Medical Center to revisit her medical records and give an accurate report about their mother’s cause of death.

Speaking to the Samoa News last week, Live Malu, one of the deceased woman’s daughters said the hospital has informed the family they can’t visit their mother at the morgue nor can they open her casket on the day of her burial due to the fact that her mother died from COVID-19.

According to the daughter, her mother did not die of COVID-19 but died from heart failure inside their family’s house in Pago Pago.

A police report states that the woman died from multiple comorbidities, and doesn’t note COVID-19 as the culprit.

Samoa News points out that in announcing the first COVID-19 death publicly, in March this year, Gov. Lemanu Peleti Palepoi Sialega Mauga said it was a man, who passed away on Tuesday, Mar. 22, at the LBJ Medical Center.

However, LBJ is continuing to treat the woman’s passing as a COVID death because she was tested for the virus when she was taken to the hospital’s ER, and the test result was positive.

According to LBJ’s COVID protocol, the casket will be transported from the morgue, straight to the grave for burial. Nobody can see her body nor say goodbye to her, the daughter told Samoa News.

If the family wants to bring new clothes for their mother on her final day, those clothes will be placed straight inside the casket, however according to the family, their mother will be buried with the clothes she has had on since the day she died.

Ms Malu said it’s been over a month since her mother passed away and the hospital still refuses to allow the family to visit her at the morgue to change her clothes and to preform the normal practices many families do for their love ones held at the morgue.

“We made a lot of requests to the hospital to please allow us to visit my mother because it’s over a month since she left us and we’re still haven’t gotten a chance to visit her,” she said.

Ms Malo explained that the false claim by the hospital that her mother died from COVID has made everything very hard for them — this includes not being able to visit their mother — despite the fact that her mother did not die from COVID.

“My mother died at our home in Pago Pago and she died from heart failure, not COVID-19,” the daughter claimed.

According to Ms Malu, immediately after her mother died (Mar. 2), some unknown LBJ employees posted on their social media saying that a woman from Pago Pago, who died at the hospital on that same date, was the first COVID-19 fatality.

Samoa News was also aware of this post on social media.

The news was shared by many members of the community here on island and also off-island on social media and a lot of people who commented on the news on social media were confused and worried.

Some comments on social media stated they didn’t believe the news, while other stated that they were confused and frustrated because if this is true, why are LBJ and the Task Force not saying anything to the community about the first territorial COVID-19 fatality.

“As I mentioned before, my mother did not die from COVID-19, she died from heart failure,” the daughter said.

She explained that before her mother died, she was looking normal and doing her normal routine at home like many other days.

On the day she died, despite her looking fine, her heart condition had not improved and she had a hard time breathing. Before 1p.m that day, her mother suddenly collapsed inside their house and was unable to breath.

Her family called 911 and the ambulance arrived at their house after 30 minutes and by that time, it was too late to offer any help to revive their mother. She was unresponsive and the color of her face quickly changed.

EMS transported her mother to the Emergency Room (ER) at the LBJ hospital.

Upon arrival at the ER, “my mother was immediately transferred to the ER treatment room while my father was not allowed to go inside,” said Malu.

Five minutes later, a nurse came outside and informed her father — who was waiting under the tent outside of the ER parking lot that his wife had tested positive for COVID-19.

Due to the LBJ findings, the father and one of the sisters, who had accompanied their mother’s body to the hospital were also instructed to take the test. After more than 20 minutes, the results came out and both the father and the daughter tested negative.

However, due to the deceased testing positive for COVID-19, none of her family members were allowed inside the ER to see her, nor to say goodbye to her before her body was taken inside the morgue.

Ms Live Malu said that there was no prayer service — as is a common practice for those who have passed away — to allow their family members, friends or even church members to pay their respects to their mother before her body was taken into the morgue. 

According to the daughter, there is no record from the LBJ to prove that her mother was the first COVID-19 fatality and their family is in the dark as to why the hospital is not allowing them to visit her and at least change her clothes.

“All we’re asking for is to be allowed to visit our mother at the morgue so that we can say goodbye to her before she is laid to rest, but we are denied,” Ms. Malu said.

She further stated, “The idea that the hospital restrains us from seeing our mother for the last time before she is laid to rest is an insult to our family.”

Due to the fact the woman died at her Pago Pago residence, a thorough investigation was conducted by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to determine the cause of death on Mar. 8 (6 days after the woman died).

The investigation revealed the deceased was officially pronounced dead by Dr. De Leone Joselito at 1:18p.m on Mar. 2 at the ER.

She died from multiple comorbidities. Investigators also learned from Dr. De Leone that the deceased tested positive after a swab test was taken at the ER when she arrived. The deceased had a medical history.

Also mentioned in the DPS report was that Dr. De Leone did not recommend that the officers examine the body due to the deceased having tested positive for COVID.

Observation and examination of the deceased’s body revealed no signs of injuries, bruises, or marks that may involve criminal activity. Therefore, investigators determined that foul play was not a factor in the death.

DPS then recommended that the deceased’s body be released to the family for funeral arrangements.

The letter from the Attorney General Fainu’ulelei Falefatu Ala’ilima-Utu to the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Iotamo Saleapaga — a copy of which was given to Samoa News —  reveals the authorization for release of the body back to her family for burial.

Fainu’ulelei stated in his Mar. 10 letter to Dr. Saleapaga that the DPS investigation involving the death of the deceased had been completed.

“There was no foul play involved. The corpse of the above subject may be released back to family members for burial,” the letter said.