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Hinshaw apologizes after Alberta mistakenly reports 14-year-old's cancer death was caused by COVID-19


The family of a 14-year-old Alberta boy who recently died doesn’t want his nine-month cancer fight overlooked because he tested positive for COVID-19 shortly before dying.

Nathanael Spitzer’s death on Oct. 7 was reported by the province several days later as Alberta’s youngest COVID-19 fatality.

But Nathanael’s siblings say doctors found an inoperable tumour on their brother’s brain months earlier.

“It was a high-grade glioma and the doctors, they didn’t even give him the nine months. They didn’t give us an exact number but they really suggested that five months, six months, maybe,” Jonatan Spitzer told CTV News Edmonton.

“Basically, the whole nine months he was fighting for cancer, and then two days before his death, it was just a COVID case,” Simone Spitzer, Nathanael's sister, added.

“We just want to get the story straight.”


Nathanael spent his last months in hospital, always with one parent beside his bed.

Jonatan said he watched his brother grow weaker by the day.

Days before Nathanael -- or Nati, as his family called him -- passed, he tested positive for COVID-19.

Jonatan said he immediately began to worry his brother’s cause of death would be classified as coronavirus: “What if they’re going to write it off?”

“I assured my parents, like, there’s no way they’re going to do that. That would just be ridiculous. There’s no way they could do that.”

Five days later, Alberta’s top government and health officials delivered the provincial COVID-19 update in a live news conference. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported 33 deaths due to COVID-19 over the Thanksgiving long weekend.

“This includes the death of a 14-year-old who had complex, pre-existing medical medical conditions that played a significant role in their death,” she said before continuing, “I extend my deepest condolences to the loved ones of all of these individuals.”

The Spitzer family in Ponoka believes Alberta was wrong for reporting Nati’s death as caused by COVID-19, and was upset by subsequent headlines.

“It’s not like he had all this time that was taken away from him,” Jonatan said.

In his last days, Simone said not even the pain stopped Nathanael from having a smile on his face and a quip on the tip of his tongue. She called him sunshine.

“All of his fighting was now swept under the table, and he’s just another COVID case.”


Hinshaw started her Thursday remarks with an apology to Spitzer's family.

"The pain of losing a child is terrible enough without having that loss compounded by a public debate about the circumstances. I'm sorry if the way that I spoke about that death made your grief worse," she said.

Hinshaw went on to explain Alberta Health's death review process, or how it determines whether COVID-19 was a primary or secondary cause.

In its COVID-19 reporting, Alberta Health classifies all related deaths as those in which COVID-19 was a direct or contributing factor.

COVID-19 is ruled a primary cause when it directly led to death, Hinshaw explained, whereas it being labelled as a secondary cause means the disease worsened a severe pre-existing condition that results in death. The province considers cancer -- among diabetes, dementia, chronic kidney disease and others -- as pre-existing health conditions.

However, a review of Spitzer's death after Tuesday's announcement found COVID-19 did not play a primary or secondary role in his death, Hinshaw said.

"While initial report of the death of the 14-year-old included COVID as a secondary cause, we have now received additional information that indicates COVID was not a cause of death."

Alberta Health will no longer publicly report COVID-19 deaths in anyone under the age of 18 until the review process is completed.

"We will prioritize accuracy over timeliness in these cases," Hinshaw said.

Spitzer's death was removed from Alberta's COVID-19 death count.

Simone told CTV News that while the Spitzer family appreciates the new change in protocol, the feeling of betrayal is still there.

"Dealing with this situation right after losing Nathanael to cancer has caused a lot of frustration within family and friends," Simone said.

Alberta Health has before removed deaths from its total count when a post-mortem review concluded COVID-19 was not a direct or major factor in the person’s passing. The most recent example is from Oct. 7, when the department removed three deaths from the provincial total after determining they were unrelated to COVID-19. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Jeremy Thompson and Matthew Black Top Stories

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