A veteran medical examiner who reviewed 4000 Covid deaths explains how many were REALLY from Covid (and how many were of healthy people)
Dr. Brian Peterson ran the Milwaukee County medical examiner's office until he was suddenly forced to retire in September; did his honesty about Covid cost him his job?
After 11,500 autopsies over four decades, Dr. Brian L. Peterson was used to high-profile forensic work - including the 2004 California murder trial of Scott Peterson (no relation).
But he never expected the blowback he’d face for telling families their loved ones had not died of Covid.
Until September, Brian Peterson served as chief medical examiner for Milwaukee County. With about 1 million people, the county has roughly 10,000 deaths a year, and its pathologists conduct about 1,500 autopsies annually.
When the coronavirus epidemic began in 2020, Peterson decided to review every Covid-related death in the county - to see for himself who was dying and how. Over the next two-and-a-half years, he made brief reviews of medical records for about 4,000 people that physicians had said died of Covid.
(Another Milwaukee County Covid victim taken in her prime)
As far as Peterson knows, only one other county medical examiner in the United States performed a similar review. It is possible that Peterson has looked at medical records for more individual Covid-related deaths than anyone else.
Here’s what he found.
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Roughly 20 percent of deaths that physicians certified as Covid-related were not. Some would have been obvious to a layperson - the classic example being a homicide victim who happened to have a positive Covid test.
Peterson - who served as president of the National Association of Medical Examiners in 2017 - noted others, though.
An example he gave: someone who died of congestive heart failure and was noted as having shortness of breath following a positive coronavirus test - but no other Covid-related symptoms or treatment. Shortness of breath is a standard symptom in people who die of congestive heart failure. Peterson said he didn’t see how attributing it, or the death, to Covid made sense.
Another 20 percent of deaths came in people with very late-stage cancer or other terminal conditions who did have Covid and symptoms specific to it when they died. Those people would likely have died in days or weeks even if they had not been infected, Peterson said. Still, he added Sars-Cov-2 to their death certificates as a secondary cause, since the virus had hastened their deaths.
In other words, about 40 percent of all the deaths attributed to Covid had either a marginal link to it or none at all.
The remaining 60 percent came in people who had positive coronavirus tests, had Covid symptoms and were received Covid-specific treatments, and were not at imminent risk of death when they contracted Covid and died.
In those cases, Peterson agreed that the coronavirus was the primary cause of death and reported it that way on their death certificates.
Stil, the people who died of Covid were almost always very unhealthy, he said.
“Even those folks had comorbidities that were substantial.”
I asked him directly: of the 4,000 Covid deaths, how many people would he classify as healthy before they contracted Sars-Cov-2?
Fewer than 100, he said.
Could he be more specific?
In other words, fewer than 1 percent of all the Covid deaths Peterson reviewed had occurred in people who were not already very unwell.
How about specific examples of those deaths? Deaths of young or healthy people?
He recalled one teenager, he said. “But he had leukemia.”
Yes. But leukemia in young adults is treatable, and Peterson believed the teenager might be alive today if he had not contracted Covid.
In early 2021, Peterson’s unwillingness to rubber-stamp Covid deaths became more controversial.
The Biden Administration’s “American Rescue Plan” included government reimbursements of up to $9,000 for funeral expenses for Covid deaths. Run through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the funeral program was retroactive to January 2020.
No one has ever explained exactly why people who die of Covid should get thousands of dollars for their funerals when no one else does. Nonetheless, the program has paid out more than $2.6 billion to more than 400,000 families and still continues.
“The Covid bounty became an issue,” Peterson said. “A lot of families were angry when I wouldn’t put Covid on the death certificate.” His explanations did little to calm them. Doctors had told them their family members had died of Covid. They didn’t understand why someone who had never even met the person who had died wouldn’t agree.
Still, Peterson kept filling out certificates as he saw fit. He also posted anonymized Covid death certificates along with other death certificates on the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Website, providing an invaluable resource for people who wanted to know who was really dying of Covid. Like me.
(This September 2020 tweet received over 1 million views.)
Then, in the summer of 2022, Peterson made another move that put him even further out of step with his political overlords. He began reporting the Covid vaccination status of the people who’d died on their certificates. Peterson, who is not vaccinated against Covid, simply felt the information might be pertinent, he said.
“What I did just before I left, I asked them… can you tell me the vaccination status, so I just started listing that.”
On Monday, September 19, 2022, Peterson’s time ran out.
He was called into an “emergency meeting” with Milwaukee County’s head of human resources and an assistant to the county executive. He did not know what was coming, he said - though in retrospect he realized that the county had turned off email forwarding to his phone had been turned off over the weekend.
In a four-minute meeting, he was told the county two choices for him, resign or retire, he said. He chose to resign and was escorted back to the medical examiner’s building by three sheriff’s deputies. He waited outside for his personal effects; he was never allowed inside again.
He had been chief medical examiner for 12 years.
The same day, county executive David Crowley released a statement saying that Peterson had resigned voluntarily.
“Today, Brian Peterson shared his intention to retire from his role as Milwaukee County Examiner,” Crowley said. “His retirement is effective immediately. On behalf of Milwaukee County.”
Peterson’s resignation has now become a political issue in Milwaukee, because it has held up a high-profile trial in which an off-duty police officer allegedly killed a man after a party. In an interview with a Wisconsin television station on Monday, Oct. 31, Crowley insisted Peterson resigned voluntarily.
"The last thing I saw was a retirement letter that was signed by Dr. Peterson," Crowley said.
Peterson acknowledged he signed retirement papers but said the county administrators made clear he had no choice. “[They said], ‘We don’t want you anymore, you can resign or retire.”
Peterson he still does not know whether anger over his refusal to rubber-stamp Covid death certificates or his inclusion of Covid vaccination status led the county to demand his resignation. But he said he cannot think of other possible reasons.
After almost 40 years conducting autopsies, Peterson said he has no plans to stop. Because his departure leaves the county with only four pathologists, Milwaukee is likely to give up its business conducting autopsies for the surrounding Wisconsin counties. He expects some may come to him, he said.
“I figure I’ve got a few hundred cases left,” he said.