Weathered headstones and gentle hills provide a sense of tranquility inside the stone walls of Mount Mora Cemetery.
Those buried here include generals, politicians and industrialists from St. Joseph’s founding days and Gilded Age. Their accomplishments still echo today, but their deaths are shrouded in time.
More than likely, the end wasn’t pretty for anyone buried in a cemetery that opened in 1851. Pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis and diarrhea were the most common causes of death at the dawn of the 20th century, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Things are different today, thanks to advances like antibiotics and modern water and sewage treatment. Someone in 2020 is most likely to die from heart disease, cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease. St. Joseph is no exception.
“We think we’re special, and we are special for other reasons, but not for how we die,” said Dr. Jane Schwabe, a cardiac surgeon at Mosaic Life Care. “Buchanan County is exactly like the rest of the United States. The number one killer is heart disease. The second most common cause of death is
cancer, and lung cancer is the most common of all cancers.”
The coronavirus pandemic places a new spotlight on how we die, with some questioning the high fatality totals attributed to COVID-19. As of Friday, the virus has caused 17 deaths in Buchanan County and more than 190,000 fatalities nationwide.
Media reports don’t reflect the reality that a person often dies from multiple causes, with room on a death certificate for an immediate factor and three others leading up to it. COVID-19 can act as a trigger that leads to the death of a patient, especially an elderly one. They might have lived five more years with a certain condition, but not after COVID.
“Usually when somebody dies, it’s not just one thing that takes their life. It’s a series of events,” Schwabe said. “COVID was sort of the ball that got things rolling and their bodies couldn’t take it anymore. Had the initial event of the virus not happened, they would not have died at this particular time.”
Dr. Adam Wineinger, Buchanan County’s medical examiner, noted a similar phenomenon with patients who died of pneumonia after getting AIDS.
“We’re probably undercounting the coronavirus deaths, to be honest with you,” said Wineinger, who is called to find a cause in suspicious and unattended deaths.
This year, Wineinger notices a trend of more overdose deaths in Buchanan County, with 16 so far in 2020 and three or four cases pending. All of last year brought 15 overdose deaths.
“Last year was a record number,” he said. “It’s a problem across the country.”
Medical professionals caution against looking at numbers as the sole measure. Buchanan County averages about 240 deaths due to heart disease a year, but that doesn’t mean those 16 or so overdose deaths don’t merit some sort of action, such as prescription drug monitoring.
The same could be said for COVID-19, especially when considering, unlike heart disease or diabetes, the virus can be transmitted to friends, co-workers and loved ones.
“It is a serious disease. It’s real,” said Schwabe, who calls wearing a mask part of “being a good citizen on the planet.”
Many people do take coronavirus precautions seriously, which makes Schwabe wonder what would happen if a similar focus was devoted to some of the leading causes of death. Buchanan County trends higher than the state average in deaths from heart disease, chronic lower respiratory disease and diabetes. All have a link to smoking or unhealthy lifestyles.
Health rankings from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimate that Buchanan County residents lost a combined 8,800 years of life from premature death from 2016 to 2018. The rankings calculate that figure under the assumption that the average person lives to age 75. A newborn baby would lose 75 years, a 20-year-old who dies in a car accident loses 55 years and a 70-year-old who has a heart attack loses five years.
The sad thing is many of those deaths are preventable.
“I think preventative medicine is not very sexy,” Schwabe said. “People get more excited about a cure or a pill or a potion or something, but preventative medicine is what’s going to make us live longer. It’s harder to do: Eating right. Exercising. Not smoking. Getting eight hours of sleep. We need to do them consistently every day.”
Despite national trends, the local count on election judges remains strong as the Nov. 4 general election draws closer.
Buchanan County Clerk Mary Baack-Garvey said she hasn’t seen backing out by election officials as much as other areas have due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have really lucked out here in Buchanan County,” said Baack-Garvey, the county’s chief election official. “Our election judges are so dedicated.”
She estimated only a handful of judges have stepped aside because of the
“Other than that, they have all stepped up to the plate and are ready to work,” Baack-Garvey said.
The county clerk said election judges will be up against a potential record-breaking turnout this November.
“This is going to be a very busy election,” she said. “I think we are going to see probably the highest turnout Buchanan County will ever see.”
Even with a projected heavy turnout, Baack-Garvey said she has the resources she needs to keep everything running smoothly.
“I’m basically tripling up the number of judges at each location and we have had no problems so far in filling those positions,” she said. “So, knock on wood, we’re looking good so far.”
The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 7 in Missouri, while Kansas has a deadline of 21 days prior to the election. Baack-Garvey said the biggest issues for voters is knowing whether or not they are even registered.
“If they are unsure, they just need to call (the Buchanan County Clerk’s) office,” she said. “The sooner the better, that way we can update their address or get them in the system.”
Baack-Garvey also said another issue her office is seeing is knowing the differences between a mail-in ballot, which must be notarized in Missouri, and an absentee ballot, which requires no such notarization as long it’s deemed an absentee ballot.
She also pointed to the expanded criteria for voting absentee in Missouri. Now, because of COVID-19, those who are deemed “at-risk” for contracting or spreading the virus are included in the eligibility to vote by absentee category. Regardless of risk factor, anyone can vote by mail in the November election.
For more information on voting by mail or absentee, contact your county election authority. In Buchanan County, that number is 816-271-1412.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions, but bills remain due and renters may headed towards a cliff when the order expires.
Officials at both the local and federal level agree assistance is needed, but no relief legislation is readily impending.
“It’s time to have Congress to address the situation instead of fighting along partisan lines,” Jeff Penland, the executive director of the St. Joseph Housing Authority, said. “People are struggling, that’s a fact.”
A second round of stimulus relief has been stalled in Congress, under the partisan lines that Penland bemoans.
The Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a $3.4 trillion stimulus bill in May, but that bill hasn’t advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate.
On Thursday, a Republican-sponsored “skinny stimulus” bill also failed to advance past a procedural vote in the Senate without the support of a single Democrat. That bill also was opposed by Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Josh Hawley, one of Missouri’s Republican senators, told News-Press NOW it’s the fault of Democrats that action hasn’t been taken on evictions.
“This is probably something Congress ought to take up in COVID-19 relief legislation,” he said. “So I would call again on my Democratic colleagues, let’s put a bill on the floor and let’s get something done here in the next couple of weeks.”
Hawley said he would be “willing to negotiate” with Democrats on individual issues, like evictions, outside of an omnibus-style COVID-19 relief bill which would cover a multitude of issues.
“I’m totally opposed to spending money on a bailout for blue states and other nonsense like that,” Hawley said. “Let’s focus on working parents, working families, kids, parents with kids at home.”
Penland said many renters and landlords will have to work out repayment plans when the moratorium ends after Dec. 31.
“Try to figure out how to make that work,” Penland said. “More people are faced with the decision of meeting the requirements to look into housing assistance than ever before.”
Should a St. Joseph resident be faced with housing troubles, he or she can contact the Housing Authority at 816-236-8200.
Under the CDC’s current rule, renters may sign a declaration that they’re covered by the moratorium, in which case they cannot be evicted for failure to pay rent, but can be evicted for other reasons.
The declaration requires renters to have exhausted publicly available housing benefits and attest they’d have to move into some type of group living if evicted.