Horse Gulch Blog

Watchdogging for the greater Durango area

16 Jan 2021

Misreported: health department associates overdose death with COVID-19 outbreak

Posted by Adam Howell


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A Bayfield man’s overdose death was misreported by San Juan Basin Public Health as being associated with a COVID-19 outbreak, and then it was refuted by a pathologist’s autopsy report nearly a month later.

San Juan Basin Public Health misreported Oliver's death

This screenshot shows the misleading association that SJBPH makes between Toliver’s death and the COVID-19 outbreak at Hilltop House.

In contrast to a health department web posting, a Durango Herald news article and a Durango Herald obituary for Colton Toliver, was the cause of death listed in the autopsy report. Specifically, the cause of death was listed in the autopsy report as methadone toxicity; the manner of death: an accident.

At the time of death, Colton Toliver, 37, was staying at Hilltop House, a community corrections and rehabilitation facility in Durango.

Additionally, there were 25 residents and 6 staff members who were confirmed as COVID-19 cases, according to the health department. It should be noted that the COVID-19 PCR tests that were used do not detect active infectious virus, according to a virologist and the directors of labs that process the samples. Instead, a positive test indicates the presence of RNA and nucleic acids, they said.

Firstly, the misreported association appeared to originate in a post on the San Juan Basin Public Health website titled “COVID-19 Outbreak Identified at Hilltop House in Durango.” The misleading information was found in the last sentence of the first paragraph.

“There has been one death of a resident associated with this outbreak,” the news release from San Juan Basin Public Health says.

To determine why the health department misreported Oliver’s death in association with the outbreak, I asked Claire Ninde, the Director of Communications for San Juan Basin Public Health. I asked Ninde if their news release was misleading.

“SJBPH does not determine causes of death, but does report on cases who die of any cause, including when the cases are associated with an identified outbreak according to the CDPHE outbreak definition,” said Ninde.

In other words, she was unwilling to answer whether the implied association that the article made was misleading.

Secondly, it appeared that The Durango Herald published the health department’s same misleading claim without waiting for the autopsy to confirm it. The news release appears to have been rewritten as a Herald Staff Report by Shane Benjamin.

“One resident has died in connection with the outbreak, SJBPH said,” the Durango Herald Staff Report said.

Colton Toliver's death was misreported as caused by COVID-19

Colton Toliver’s image, as captured via screenshot from his mom’s Facebook page.

Thirdly, an obituary for Toliver was published with the wrong cause of death. It said that Toliver died of COVID-19. The obituary was submitted by the family, according to Shane Benjamin, The Durango Herald‘s Deputy Editor.

“Colton struggled with many demons throughout his short life, including addiction,” said the obituary. “Colton did not pass away due to his addiction, he lost his battle to COVID19.”

Unfortunately, the obituary wrongly stated Toliver’s cause of death, and it may have had the greatest impact on misinforming the public.

Attempts to reach Colton’s mother Kelly Toliver via email for comment were unsuccessful. I confirmed with MailTrack software that Kelly opened my email messages multiple times.

About the author

Adam Howell is an unaffiliated voter and writer who believes in the constitution and accountability for all. He can be reached with feedback by clicking on this link to the contact page.

scan toliver
Misreporting of Colton's death in the Durango Herald

A screenshot of a Durango Herald story with a misleading claim about Toliver’s death.

Colton's obituary misreported Oliver's cause of death

Colton Toliver’s cause of death was misreported in a Durango Herald obituary seen in this screenshot.



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