The family of the late Cuban American Democratic activist Patrick Hidalgo is pushing for his death to be counted as one of the over 16,000 COVID-19 deaths in Florida, contesting the findings of his autopsy months after Miami-Dade County ruled his death was related to heart disease.
Hidalgo, 41, who worked under President Barack Obama to help develop his Cuba re-engagement policy, was found dead in his Miami apartment on March 3. At the time, testing for COVID-19 was almost nonexistent in the U.S. and was restricted to people who had travel history to countries like China and Italy. Almost eight months later, an independent review of samples of his organ tissue found he had a type of acute lung injury that has been linked to COVID-19.
“The lung pathology with... acute lung injury is thus suggestive of, and consistent with, early lung involvement by SARS-CoV-2,” says the report, written by pathologist Charles C. Marboe at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19. Hidalgo’s family paid for the test.
Marboe adds that there is no “specific definitive cause” for his death, and says that more testing during Hidalgo’s autopsy could have reached a more conclusive finding. In a statement, Hidalgo’s family said they think the county should have done more to find answers and they believe the Miami-Dade County’s Medical Examiner was hiding information.
“For 40 years, our parents have been residents of Miami-Dade, but the county failed us during the greatest trial of our lives,” the Hidalgos wrote in a statement dated Oct. 23. “We request truthful answers from County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on the Medical Examiner’s Office.”
Gimenez’s office referred questions to the Medical Examiner’s office. A spokesman for the Medical Examiner’s office, Darren Caprera, said the office stands by its original findings, which he said did not include any reference to a lung injury.
Hidalgo was found in his apartment on March 3, about 12 hours after he died. Two days after his death, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office ruled that it was related to “hypertensive heart disease.”
But the family suspected something was off: Hidalgo was just 41, ate healthily, went on frequent runs and did not have any serious health problems.
It was also at least two months after the virus likely began spreading in Florida. People with no travel history to places where the disease had already taken hold first began to report symptoms as far back as January, suggesting community spread at that time, according to a Miami Herald analysis of state records in May. The family said Hidalgo complained to them that he woke up overnight gasping for air the night before he died.
“Patrick was the epitome of health,” said his brother, Manny Hidalgo, in an interview with the Miami Herald. “You don’t just drop dead of a heart attack.”
After what Manny Hidalgo said were five unsuccessful attempts to have his brother’s body tested for COVID-19 during April and May, the family decided to have tissue samples independently tested by a pathologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office said it couldn’t test him because his body had started to decompose.
The decomposition of the cells, a county pathologist explained in an email to Manny Hidalgo provided to the Herald, breaks down “vital particles,” such as the RNA of COVID-19. He added that Patrick Hidalgo had “cardiac symptoms” as early as April 2019.
The Medical Examiner’s office also explained there weren’t enough COVID-19 tests widely available in Miami-Dade at the time.
“We definitely feel that we were not given the full story and there might’ve been some outright obfuscation of the truth,” said Manny Hidalgo. “We feel [that] is consistent with how the governor has treated COVID, how the president has treated COVID, how a lot of cowardly politicians have treated COVID with nothing but fear, cover-up and obfuscation.”
Caprera said that despite Columbia’s report, the Miami-Dade ME’s office did a thorough examination of Hidalgo’s body.
Manny Hidalgo says he wants other families to know that if they lost a family member whose autopsy shows anything indicative of acute lung injury, it may be related to COVID-19.
“I don’t trust the numbers at all,” Manny Hidalgo said. “We are going to try to correct the record.”
Miami Herald staff writer Ben Conarck contributed to this report.