New first probable COVID death in Illinois uncovered — a 64-year-old woman from Chicago who thought she had a cold

For two years, the first confirmed death from COVID-19 in Illinois was believed to be that of Patricia Frieson, a retired Black nurse from Chicago, on March 16, 2020.

But new information uncovered by the Tribune shows that another woman, an office worker from Chicago, was the first probable fatal case in the state, six days earlier.

Sixty-four-year-old Debra K. Smith had just moved into a high-rise apartment near Millennium Park in Chicago Feb. 28, where some of her boxes were still unpacked, and she was scheduled to start a new job March 9. But when she talked by phone to her brother on the West Coast, he recently told the Tribune, she told him she was sick with a flu or bad cold.

Starting March 7, the brother didn’t hear from her. On March 10, after her employer said she hadn’t shown up for work, her brother asked for a well-being check.

An apartment manager opened the door to find Smith unresponsive on her couch. Paramedics were called and saw no signs of trauma, but found she was dead, the police report showed.

The death certificate initially reported that Smith died of natural causes, listing her only known condition, hypertensive cardiovascular disease, or high blood pressure, as the cause.

But after speaking with her doctor, the sudden death of his otherwise healthy sister bothered her brother, who spoke with the Tribune but asked that his name not be used.

He wrote a letter to the Cook County medical examiner, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, asking to have the case reconsidered.

“In retrospect,” he wrote, “she was exhibiting all the symptoms of COVID — fever, night sweats, extreme fatigue, breathing trouble, muscle pain, mild disorientation, etc.”

Smith’s doctor spoke with the medical examiner’s office and concurred that Smith’s death was most likely due to COVID-19. Debra Smith had recently had a physical exam, her high blood pressure was well managed, and her health was generally excellent, her brother said.

In September 2021, Arunkumar signed a sworn statement that the cause of death should be probable COVID-19 and hypertensive cardiovascular disease, and the office issued a new death certificate with that change.

The medical examiner’s office reviewed dozens of other cases it handled of people dying of flulike symptoms from November 2019 through March 2020, testing tissue samples when available, but didn’t find evidence any of them had died of COVID-19, said county spokeswoman Natalia Derevyanny.

She confirmed that Smith was believed to be the first probable case, but cautioned that many natural deaths before the pandemic were not seen by the office, so there may be additional cases that were missed.

The federal government offers up to $9,000 to help pay for funeral expenses due to a death from COVID-19, and reportedly has given out $2 billion for such costs, but Smith’s brother said he didn’t apply for the money.

Her brother still misses Smith, originally from Milwaukee, who was single with no children. She worked as a marketing or project manager, for Challenger, Gray & Christmas at the time she died.

Smith took good care of herself, her brother said, going to the gym and playing golf, and looked 20 years younger than her age. He didn’t know how she could have caught the disease. Had she known more about it at that early stage, she would have seen a doctor.

He remains shocked by her death.

“Perfectly healthy people don’t just die out of the blue from a cold,” he said. “This was just to get some sort of logical explanation for what happened to my sister. I think there are probably lots more cases prior to that that they didn’t know what was going on.”

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