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WGN Investigates has an update to our series on excess deaths in Illinois during the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

State death data showed several thousand deaths that have occurred this year not related to COVID.

What does this tells us about the virus’ wide-ranging impact?

Jim Smith of Joliet was far more than a number. He died of COVID-related complications in late September. WGN News shared his widow Jan Smith’s plea two weeks later.

“I would not wish this thing on anybody and no, you don’t understand what it is until it hits close to home,” she said. “If I can get one person to wear a mask to protect those around them – and themselves – you know what it’s worth it.”

 But COVID isn’t the only thing driving a huge increase in the number of deaths in Illinois.

WGN Investigates requested death data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

There have been 12,182 additional deaths — or “excess deaths” as they’re known — so far this year, compared to the average number in the last two years.

About 8,671 were classified as COVID-deaths.

That leaves more than 3,500, or 29 percent of the additional deaths this year, not classified as COVID.

 “Some of them will be COVID deaths that were not diagnosed when we didn’t have robust testing,” IDPH’s Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.  “Some of them will be people who may have, because of the devastation of this traumatic event we’re going through, overdosed.  We know overdoses have increased.  Some may not be seeking care because of COVID.”

Dr. Sadiya Khan is a Northwestern Medicine epidemiologist.

 “I think there’s a real chance these excess deaths are the result of either not receiving timely health care because there wasn’t access to it or due to fear,” Khan said.

 Studies have shown, especially early in the pandemic, people avoided hospitals when experiencing things like chest pain for fear they might get COVID.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association mirrored Illinois’ numbers.

Nationally, 67% of excess deaths this year were related to COVID.

Researchers found deaths due to heart disease as well as Alzheimer’s and dementia had the highest increases.

Experts said it’s a reminder that people need to seek treatment for illness while still protecting themselves from the pandemic.

“I think it speaks to the fact that there can be adverse consequences, even if the reaction is appropriate,” Khan said. “I hesitate to say we’re over-reacting because I think COVID is a very legitimate concern and the risk is real.”

In recent months, hospitals and local health agencies have been reminding people it’s safe to visit the doctor and staying current on vaccinations and screenings for disease should continue.

Mental health has also been a big concern during the pandemic and lockdowns.  The CDC advised public health officials to increase intervention and prevention efforts to address mental health concerns.