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State begins to report deaths linked to COVID-19 to county coroners

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

The state Department of Health last week began notifying county coroners of deaths linked to the coronavirus, a sudden change that was welcomed by York County Coroner Pam Gay.

But gaps in the data stremain because the state continues to keep coroners in the dark about deaths that occur outside of the deceased's county of residence — leaving other calls for state-level transparency unanswered. 

"I felt like I wanted to be sure that all the deaths in York County were being reported to me," Gay said. "I was glad to learn that occurred. I think we're at least getting close to consistency."

More:Coronavirus pandemic: Here's what York County's data looks like

More:York County sees 13 new coronavirus cases, no additional deaths

Information about local deaths became available because the state on May 18 stopped using the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System, which is typically used to report deaths during infectious disease outbreaks.

That system does not provide updates directly to coroners, Health Department spokesperson Nate Wardle said.

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

The state decided to switch to the Electronic Death Registration System, the official state death-reporting system with which coroners are familiar.

"Typically, during an infectious disease outbreak, the reporting is done through NEDSS. However, the department decided that due to the mortality of COVID-19, that reporting deaths through EDRS had become the more effective route of reporting deaths in Pennsylvania," Wardle said.

Even so, Gay had only been notified of 15 of the 22 York County residents whose deaths were linked to coronavirus as of Tuesday afternoon, she said.

The new reporting system still does not notify coroners if someone who resides in York dies in another county — another point of contention between coroners and the state.

Coroners statewide had been frustrated for months with the lack of state reporting about deaths caused by the coronavirus.

They have also griped about how the state considers 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 for investigation.

But coroners contend that directly contradicts statutes that require a local investigation of deaths "known or suspected to be due to contagious disease and constituting a public hazard."

The Pennsylvania Coroners Association has shared those concerns in regular meetings with state officials, association President Chuck Kiessling has said.

It is unclear if the state health department will fill in those gaps, but Wardle said that the state maintains contact with coroners to address their needs.

"We are continuing to work with the coroners and numerous other parties to ensure the data being presented is accurate," he said.

As of Tuesday, York County has reported 943 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. It has had 22 deaths linked to the coronavirus.

Statewide, there have been 68,637 positive cases and 5,152 deaths.

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