Shadick expresses concern

During his report at the Langlade County Public Safety Committee meeting on Friday, Langlade County Coroner Larry Shadick expresses concern over the rising trend in home deaths that have gone unnoticed for lengthy periods of time by the victims’ family, friends or the county officials. In some cases, a body might remain in the home for days or weeks before discovery.

No one should die alone, passing from this world unnoticed without at least an inkling of sentiment from another person, or without the implementation of appropriate and official after-death processes.

That feeling spoke aloud during Friday’s Langlade County Public Safety Committee meeting in light of a disturbing trend related to deaths in the county that some on the committee believe stem from the evolution of the “new social norms” in the era of COVID-19. It also stressed the importance for all Langlade County residents to maintain a compassionate etiquette for their neighbors when it comes to keeping the community safe.

Larry Shadick, the county coroner, informed the committee that ever since the pandemic, he has noticed a marked increase in the number of Langlade County residents who die in their homes (from various causes) and whose deaths go unnoticed for an extended period of time.

Discovery of those deaths may not occur for more than a week and in some cases upwards of two months. On average, significant human decomposition begins about one week after death.

“It was something that I ever kept track of before, because it was not an anomaly,” Shadick told the Antigo Daily Journal.

Before the pandemic, in Langlade County, Shadick might see one or two home deaths that go unnoticed for more than a week or two. In 2021, he estimated that about 11 had occurred in the county. In one case, the deceased individual went unnoticed for more than 62 days in her home. And it is happening in both the rural and more urban parts of the county, Shadick said.

“I’ve been in this community my whole life,” Shadick said. “Before COVID, if we didn’t see a friend for two or three days, we would have felt concerned and might think something happened.”

But nowadays, he stressed, when a person does not venture out into public for a few days, it may not seem out of the ordinary to their friends or family.

Committee Vice Chair Arlene Bonacci agreed.

“I think that some people are so afraid to go out because of COVID that they are not checking on their neighbors,” Bonacci said. “Every one of us as human beings need to be concerned about our neighbors. If we don’t see them (for a while) we need to check in on them.”

In response, County Administrator Jason Hilger, county supervisors and committee members expressed their concern and brainstormed ideas to find solutions.

“The benefit of a rural community is knowing your neighbors and checking in on (them),” Hilger said after hearing Shadick’s report.

Potential solutions discussed included notifying the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC), the county’s veterans service officer, Social Services and Public Health. Together or separately, those organizations can create literature advising residents to check in with their neighbors.

As such, by Friday afternoon, just an hour after the meeting, John Zenkovich, director of Public Health and Social Services, was already working on potential public service announcements (PSAs) and other ways to raise awareness and urge people to check in with friends, family and neighbors.

Moreover, he told the Antigo Daily Journal that U.S. Postal Service workers often are the first to notice the lack of footprints in unshoveled walkways leading up to a person’s front door or the accumulation of mail in the mailbox. He sees ways to work more closely entities like the USPS for prevention. Postal workers could help notify police or sheriff deputies to conduct a welfare check.

Situation elsewhere

Following the meeting, the Antigo Daily Journal followed up with other county medical examiners on the issue in their counties.

“In Marathon County we’ve always had this problem,” said Jessica Blahnik, Marathon County medical examiner (ME). “It happened before COVID, and it is going to happen after COVID.”

On average it occurs much more in Marathon County than in Langlade County. Blahnik could only offer an estimate, but she stated Marathon sees about two to three per month (24 to 36 per year), compared to Langlade County’s post-COVID increase to about 11 in a single year. However, she also noted that it is uncommon in her county for a home death to go unnoticed for more than a week.

One of the biggest contributors to a death going overlooked cited by Blahnik starts with the fact that the deceased often lives alone and has very few family or friends.

In Marinette County, the numbers peaked even higher with about five per month, said Marinette ME Kalynn Van Ermen.

She pointed out other contributing factors that might lead to a person’s undiscovered home death. Moreover, many residents are elderly, and Van Ermen said such undiscovered deaths more frequently occur among elderly. Marinette and Langlade Counties both have above state average elderly populations (over age 65). The state average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau is 17.1%. In Langlade County it is 24.7%, and in Marinette County, it is 24.5%.

She also cited other factors that tend to isolate people like the spotty cell phone reception in rural northern parts of the state as well as alcoholism and unemployment, which may all contribute to an undiscovered home death.

What the science says

When it comes to science, a few things seem clear.

— Research evidence lends strong support for the shift to a more isolated world since COVID. That is especially true among certain demographics such as the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

— Research also documents the various adverse mental and physical health effects that can follow.

— A scientific review published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology in 2020, stated that “physical distancing recommendations to reduce transmission of the SARS-CoV2-19 virus increase the risk of social isolation and loneliness, which are associated with negative outcomes including anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, and mortality.”

The study adds that such evidence underscores the importance of intervention efforts.

As noted by county officials, such efforts might include welfare checks by county officials or by the neighbor down the road.