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York County has fewer coronavirus deaths than initially reported

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

York County's deaths related to the coronavirus were suddenly cut in half Thursday as the state pulled "probable" deaths that need further investigation, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.

The change in tracking deaths came as coroners statewide have criticized how the state has handled reporting deaths, such as including "probable" virus-related deaths in its daily tallies.

“At times, there are things we need to review and potentially revisit the way data is being analyzed. And this is one of those times," Levine said.

For example, the state had reported 14 deaths in York County caused by the coronavirus. On Thursday, that number was halved to seven. Statewide, the total number of deaths since the beginning of the outbreak fell by about 200, to 1,395.

Further investigation has become necessary for a variety of reasons, including the need to clarify the county of residence for those who have died of causes related to the coronavirus.

Department of Health officials would not detail what other factors would necessitate further investigation, though spokesman Nate Wardle said "review determined that we needed more information before attributing them to COVID-19."

Unlike local coroners, the state classifies where deaths are recorded based on county of residence rather than where the person died.

That has left coroners questioning their death tallies, because if a York resident were to die elsewhere, the York County coroner would not be notified — yet the state is still counting it as a local death.

More:Coroner: State, local officials using different death reporting methods

More:89-year-old woman dies after altercation at York Twp. personal care home

WellSpan's second drive-thru coronavirus testing site in York County is open at the York Expo Center, Friday, March 20, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Other states in the region have split on whether to include probable virus-related deaths, which officials say is a metric approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Maryland and Delaware have used the same classifications as Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and New Jersey have only included confirmed cases in their respective death tolls since the outbreak began, according to state officials.

In Pennsylvania, the department has implemented a number of measures to increase transparency, including posting local hospital data.

But it is a struggle during the overwhelming numbers of cases in the state, which as of Thursday totaled 37,053, Levine said.

“We’re really trying to be very transparent,” Levine said. "In a global pandemic, where we’re having thousands of cases, it’s really difficult.”

Still, coroners across the state, including Gay, said the death toll confusion on Thursday was just one of a string of incidents that have left them scratching their heads.

Gay has only been notified of four of the seven deaths in the county, she said.

“Hopefully, we can get to the point where there’s a little more clarity about the process the Department of Health is using compared to our numbers,” Gay said. “I’m just going to keep beating that drum. I just would like an explanation so my numbers align with theirs.”

Frustration among coroners has continued to compound as a string of incidents has left them scratching their heads.

That includes confusion that ensued after Gay was left in the dark as to what hospital or nursing home virus-related deaths had occurred .

The problem arose because the state and coroners have different interpretations of state law.

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.

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

"This is why coroners have asked for these deaths to be reported to the coroners," said Chuck Kiessling, president of the Pennsylvania Coroners Association. "It’s not just a number to us, it's an investigation."

Confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the county increased by 15 over the previous day, bringing the total to 546. The statewide total was 37,053, up 1,369 from the day prior.

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