Pa. coroners to meet with state after weeks of frustration

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York County Coroner Pam Gay speaks before the York County Heroin Task Force announces that it will now be governed by and an executive board as the York Regional Opiate Collaborative, naming Dr. Matthew Howie, of York City Bureau of Health, executive director at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

State health officials on Friday will host a meeting with coroners throughout the state, following weeks of confusion and frustration among local officials.

The meeting will come after conflict between the state Health Department and coroners over the coronavirus death toll, a lack of information sharing and general confusion expressed by York County Coroner Pam Gay and others statewide.

"Dr. Levine will be speaking to the Pennsylvania Coroners Association later this week to discuss how we can further collaborate and work together during this COVID-19 emergency," said department spokesman Nate Wardle.

Wardle would not supply more details.

More:Coronavirus-linked deaths jump nearly 500, no new deaths in York County

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

Although Gay was not notified of the meeting and will not participate since it only involves the association's executive board, she has been vocal in her frustration over the past few weeks, often calling for meetings with the department.

On Wednesday, Chuck Kiessling, the president of the coroners association expressed some hope the meeting could ease tensions. 

“It’s a good thing we’re going to talk about this,” Kiessling said. “Hopefully, we can iron some of these things out and get some sort of a plan to fix this.”

Over the past month, a plethora of issues between the state and coroners have surfaced.

Most recently, discrepancies between coroners' own death tallies and the state's became a point of contention.

For coroners, if someone from York County were to die in a Dauphin County hospital, that usually would be considered a Dauphin County death. 

But the state is instead reporting the deceased's county of residence, which has left coroners questioning their death tallies, because if a York resident were to die elsewhere, they would never be notified — yet the state is still counting it as a local death.

While the state's method wouldn't skew statewide death totals, it has been problematic for coroners who want to stay be as accurate as possible with virus-related deaths.

Earlier this month, confusion ensued after coroners were left in the dark as to what hospital or nursing home virus-related deaths had occurred, perhaps the largest issue as of late, Kiessling said.

The problem arose due to the state and coroners having 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.

But that directly contradicts statutes governing what coroners need to investigate, which state coroners need to investigate deaths "known or suspected to be due to contagious disease and constituting a public hazard."

"I think they need to reconsider following the coroner's law in reporting these deaths," Kiessling said. "This is an important issue in our communities — to have accurate information about the numbers of deaths from each county."

In addition, coroners recently discovered the state had also been categorizing "probable" virus-related deaths in its death toll numbers.

The state briefly included "probable" deaths in its daily numbers, but abruptly stopped doing so when it began investigating some of the deaths to ensure they were accurate.

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