Sudden Death at Home. As coronavirus surges, Houston confronts its hidden toll:


HOUSTON — When Karen Salazar stopped by to check on her mother on the evening of June 22, she found her in worse shape than she expected. Her mother, Felipa Medellín, 54, had been complaining about chest pains and fatigue, symptoms that she attributed to a new diabetes treatment she’d started days earlier.

Medellín, who had seen a doctor that day, insisted she was fine. But Salazar, 29, noticed that when Medellín lay down, her chest was rising and falling rapidly — as if she couldn’t catch her breath.

“I grabbed her hand and I said: ‘I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to go to the hospital, but I’m calling the ambulance,’” Salazar said.

While Salazar was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher, her mother suddenly passed out. Then she stopped breathing.

“Mom! Mom!” Salazar remembers shouting, trying to rouse her.

Karen Salazar holds a picture of her mother, Felipa Medellín, outside of her mother’s home in Houston on Tuesday.Fred Agho / for NBC News
With the dispatcher on speakerphone, Salazar attempted CPR, repeatedly pressing her hands down on her mother’s chest, silently praying for her to startle back to life. But by the time Houston paramedics arrived at her home in northwest Houston, Medellín was dead.

Days later, an autopsy revealed the primary cause: COVID-19.

“We never thought it was COVID,” Salazar said. “We didn’t even realize she had it.”

Medellín’s death is part of a troubling trend in Houston.

As coronavirus cases surge, inundating hospitals and leading to testing shortages, a rapidly growing number of Houston area residents are dying at home, according to an NBC News and ProPublica review of Houston Fire Department data. An increasing number of these at-home deaths have been confirmed to be the result of COVID-19, Harris County medical examiner data shows.

The previously unreported jump in people dying at home is the latest indicator of a mounting crisis in a region beset by one of the nation’s worst and fastest-growing coronavirus outbreaks. On Tuesday, a record 3,851 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the Houston region, exceeding normal intensive care capacity and sending some hospitals scrambling to find additional staff and space.

The uptick in the number of people dying before they can even reach a hospital in Houston draws parallels to what happened in New York City in March and April, when there was a spike in the number of times firefighters responded to medical calls, only to discover that the person in need of help had already died. These increases also echo those reported during outbreaks in Detroit and Boston, when the number of people dying at home jumped as coronavirus cases surged.

While far more people died of COVID-19 in those cities than have died so far in Houston, researchers and paramedics say that the trend of sudden at-home deaths in Texas’ largest city is concerning because it shows that the virus’s toll may be deeper than what appears in official death tallies and daily hospitalization reports.




As coronavirus surges, Houston confronts its hidden toll: People dying at home