Media outlets jumped to conclusions by reporting that a Texas resident died from monkeypox this week despite no evidence monkeypox played a role in their death.
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) reported Tuesday that an individual in Harris County had died after being diagnosed with monkeypox, marking the first such case in the United States during the ongoing monkeypox outbreak. News outlets rushed to report the news, with some characterizing the death as “from” monkeypox.
There’s just one problem: health officials say they have no evidence at all that monkeypox played a role in the patients death.
Spokespersons from the Texas DSHS, Harris County Public Health and Harris Health System all confirmed to the Daily Caller that the patient in question was assumed to have monkeypox, but was also severely immunocompromised and carrying several other serious illnesses. There’s no way to know what role monkeypox played, if any, in the patient’s death until the autopsy is completed and results are available.
Multiple local news outlets claimed in headlines and tweets that the individual died “from monkeypox,” including MySanAntonio, KATV News, an ABC affiliate based in Arkansas, KFDM News in Beaumont, Texas and the Texas Tribune, which had a search engine headline characterizing the case as a “Texas monkeypox death.”
— MySA (@mySA) August 30, 2022
National outlets got in on the act as well. CBS News still has a headline up characterizing the case as the “first U.S. death in monkeypox outbreak.” The Daily Mail called the fatality a death “from monkeypox,” and The Washington Post called it a “monkeypox death” before immediately saying the link to the virus was “unclear.”
— Daily Mail US (@DailyMail) August 30, 2022
The patient was assumed to have monkeypox because they had not actually tested positive for the virus yet at the time of the announcement. The Harris County Public Health press release said the patient was a presumed positive for monkeypox, while the Texas DSHS release said they were “diagnosed” with monkeypox.
A Texas DSHS spokesperson said healthcare professionals there do not have the tools to test specifically for monkeypox, but for the broader category of “Orthopoxvirus” which includes viruses like monkeypox, smallpox and cowpox. “The person tested positive for Orthopoxvirus multiple times and under the CDC’s case definition would be considered a probable monkeypox case. A case is not defined as a confirmed case until the CDC performs confirmatory testing,” Lara Anton, senior press officer at the DSHS, told the Daily Caller.
“However, the CDC is not testing and confirming all cases so we may not ever have confirmation from the CDC,” she added. “There aren’t a lot of other viruses it could be since it is the only Orthopoxvirus circulating in humans.”
A spokesperson for Harris Health confirmed those details to the Daily Caller. Harris County Public Health said the “patient’s cause of death is unknown.” DSHS called the person “severely immunocompromised” and Harris County said they had “various severe illnesses.”
Harris Health referred to the two public health agencies when asked why the case was publicized when so few details are known yet about what role monkeypox may have played. A spokesperson said the healthcare system followed standard reporting procedures for the case, and that the public relations decisions made thereafter were up to health officials.
Harris County Public Health referred the Daily Caller to Texas DSHS. Texas DSHS referred back to Harris County’s press release, specifically the statement within from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. (RELATED: Actually, Yes, Monkeypox Is Likely An STD, Scientists Say)
“We are sharing this information to err on the side of transparency and to avoid potential misinformation about this case,” Hidalgo said. “The best way for us to fight this virus is through vaccines. Our goal is still to get as many people who qualify vaccinated as quickly as possible – I have always felt that vaccines are the key to reducing spread.”
Harris Health made abundantly clear that neither it nor the healthcare authorities were characterizing this death as a death “from monkeypox.” When pressed on the fact that media outlets and observers were sometimes characterizing it that way, a spokesperson said repeatedly “that’s not what we said.”
There have been nearly 20,000 cases of monkeypox reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the ongoing global outbreak. If the Texas case is confirmed to have been a monkeypox-caused fatality, it would be the first in the U.S. Three monkeypox patients have died so far in Europe along with 10 in Africa, according to the World Health Organization. The overwhelming majority of cases have been in gay and bisexual men.