'This is crazy': Coroner Pam Gay left in the dark as virus-related deaths increase

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York County Coroner Pam Gay.

As deaths related to the coronavirus in York County increase, Coroner Pam Gay has become increasingly frustrated by a lack of transparency from state health officials.

That frustration was compounded Friday morning, when WellSpan Health spokesman Ryan Coyle confirmed to The York Dispatch that the county's third death, reported by state health officials the day prior, took place at York Hospital.

Yet the company's corporate branch relayed to Gay just minutes earlier that the death toll at WellSpan remained at zero.

"I think that's a little bizarre," she said. "This is crazy. And this is why the coroner should be involved. I don't know what's going on here."

Later Friday, Coyle changed the hospital's characterization of the death, instead asserting it was a "suspected" coronavirus-related death with pending test results —explaining why Gay hadn't been notified.

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Gay said she has made transparency a priority during her tenure as the elected official responsible for investigating suspicious or unintended deaths in York County.

But like other coroners in the state, she's hit a roadblock during the novel coronavirus pandemic, with different interpretations of state law leaving her out of the loop regarding details about virus-related deaths.

The state Department of Health has deemed virus-related deaths, like those from all infectious diseases, to be natural deaths. Therefore, under state law, those deaths need not be referred to coroners.

But that directly contradicts statutes governing what coroners need to investigate, Gay said.

Under that state statute, coroners need to investigate deaths "known or suspected to be due to contagious disease and constituting a public hazard."

"We educate the public about health trends, what's going on in our community," said Gay. "We feel that if (a law) says it should be reported to us, it should be reported to us."

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York County had seen three virus-related deaths as of Friday. Gay has only been notified of the first death, which occurred Wednesday, April 1, at UPMC Hanover Hospital.

That has been the case despite the fact that she has implemented notification processes with both UPMC and WellSpan.

A lack of reporting could be harmful in other ways, as well, especially regarding first responders, with whom Gay's office has forged strong relationships over the years.

For example, the lack of reporting could put first responders in harm's way, as it is more difficult to confirm who may have come into contact with an individual whose death was virus-related, she said.

"In my experience, generally, being transparent is a good thing," Gay said. "It allays people's fears and suspicions. It puts people more at ease."

The state argues that deaths don't need to be referred to coroners not only because of its interpretation of state law but also because coroners aren't needed if a death is attended by a medical professional.

"The department believes that the current structure of handling deaths, where medical professionals handle deaths in which they attend to, is appropriate," Health Department spokesman Nate Wardle said. "This is what happens for other diseases, such as the flu."

As of noon Friday, there were 19,979 Pennsylvanians infected by the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health. There have been 416 virus-related deaths.

There have been 283 confirmed cases in York County since the outbreak began.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.