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The day after the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s tally of deaths attributed to covid-19 surpassed 8,000, the state Senate passed a bill to strengthen the role of coroners, who have questioned the accuracy of the counting system.
The bill, backed on Tuesday by all Senate Republicans and 10 Democrats, adds specifics to state law on when county coroners must be notified of contagious disease deaths.
The current wording, some coroners say, was interpreted by the Department of Health in a way that excluded coroners from the process and raises questions on the accuracy of the 8,000-plus tally.
“We can accurately say there are 8,000 people who died with a positive coronavirus test,” Pennsylvania State Coroners Association President Charles Kiessling said. “But we can’t say that coronavirus caused all 8,000 deaths.”
Early in the pandemic, Kiessling said, the department determined that suspected virus deaths were “natural” and — in the department’s interpretation of state law — did not require notice be given to coroners.
The coroners association, a key supporter of the bill, disagreed. Kiessling said virus death counts “went crazy” in some counties, with some over-reporting and some under-reporting.
Praising the bill, Kiessling said, “Hopefully, this will stop the nonsense and get us back on track.”
Health Department spokesman Nate Wardle said the department does not support the bill.
The prime sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Judy Ward of Blair County, has a district that includes parts of five counties. She said she heard from the coroners in each of those counties early in the pandemic about problems with reporting of suspected virus deaths.
Current law requires coroners to be notified of “a death known or suspected to be due to contagious disease and constituting a public hazard.” The bill — among several other provisions — would insert the phrase “including any disease constituting a health disaster emergency or pandemic.”
Another key facet of the bill, Ward said, is that it spells out coroners’ access to appropriate state databases.
Asked whether the Department of Health count of deaths attributed to covid-19 is accurate, Ward said, “It all depends on how you count the numbers.”
Wardle, in an email, said one effect of the bill would be to “slow the department’s ability to report timely public health data on infection diseases.”
He also said that releasing information to coroners “that does not serve a public health purpose” conflict with provisions of the separate Disease Control and Prevention Law. And, Wardle said, the bill provides coroners with overly broad access to all death records, rather than cases only in their jurisdiction, leaving the department without sufficient oversight of the systems it operates and manages.
Lehigh County Coroner Eric Minnich said he fully supported the bill. In Lehigh, he said, strong relationships between the coroner’s office and hospitals, nursing homes and other entities have kept covid-19 death reporting accurate.
He declined to comment on the statewide count.
Zachary Lysek, Northampton County’s coroner, said he also supported the bill. He said that his office has been made aware of the “vast majority” of suspected covid-19 deaths but there were a “handful” that were not passed along to his office.
“The only way you are going to get good, accurate and quick death information, the coroners have to be involved,” Lysek said.
A past president of the coroners’ association, Blair County Coroner Patricia Ross, said she believed the state’s tally of deaths attributable to covid-19 — which stood at 8,023 on Tuesday afternoon — was too high.
When groups of county coroners get together, she said, they frequently compare Department of Health covid-19 death figures with their own county figures.
“Our numbers are all different than what they are saying,” Ross said.
Coronavirus | News | Pennsylvania