Forest County Coroner: Pennsylvania Coroners Not Allowed to Do Their Jobs, COVID-19 Death Being Underreported

FOREST CO., Pa. (EYT) – Concerns over the reporting of coronavirus-related deaths cropped up early on in the pandemic and are still a point of contention.

Forest County Coroner Norman Wimer said that one of the major issues is the Pennsylvania Department of Health is ignoring the law regarding what county coroners are required to investigate.

According to information on the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association website, each county coroner is required, by Pennsylvania law, to investigate any death in their jurisdiction that is known or suspected to be due to contagious disease and constituting a public hazard.

Wimer, who also serves as the Regional Vice President for the Northwest Region of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association, told, “The Department of Health is refusing to acknowledge that law.”

The Department of Health has specifically instructed hospitals, physicians, nursing homes, and other care facilities that COVID-19 deaths are not to be reported through their respective county coroners. However, some continue to do so as a courtesy to their local coroner, according to Wimer.

“I respect the Department of Health and think they generally do a good job, but they are missing an important part of the role coroners can play with death reporting and statistics with COVID-19.”

According to Wimer, there is a major issue with the lag time in the reporting of COVID-19 deaths all across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and there are major concerns about the accuracy of the reporting, as well.

“Some coroners that I’ve spoken to have come to know of COVID cases, deaths, and have investigated and found those deaths have never shown up in the Department of Health numbers.”

The Department of Health is a huge agency with many things to oversee during a pandemic, while each county coroner can focus on just their own county, Wimer said.

“Most of us do a really good job of keeping track of death statistics. We can track them quickly and easily and could do the same if we were allowed to investigate these COVID deaths as we’re supposed to. I can report deaths with complete accuracy on the day I investigate the death, in most cases.”

Wimer also noted that the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association had recently worked with a bipartisan group of state senators and representatives on Senate Bill 1164, a bill that would have reinforced the law. However, Governor Wolf vetoed the bill, stating it would cause delays in the reporting of information.

“It’s really just the exact opposite,” Wimer said, stating that coroners could report the information quicker and more accurately than the current situation. The current process involves a physician certifying the death, the certification being sent to a funeral home, and the funeral home passing that paperwork on to the Vital Records department for processing.

“The lag time could be a week or more before that information even gets to the Department of Health,” Wimer said.

“We could report it immediately. This is probably the most significant thing of our time, and the folks on the front lines that should be, and are technically required to be investigating and reporting this information, are not being allowed to do so.”

While Wimer has kept busy communicating with other county coroners, both in the region he represents and in the wider commonwealth, he noted living in a smaller, less populated county in a rural region has allowed him more breathing room than many of his colleagues.

“In Northwestern Pennsylvania, we’re still very lucky. On the other side of the state, there are coroners with 50 to 60 deaths a week that aren’t being reported yet. I hear about it all the time.”

Wimer also noted that the one death that has been reported by the Department of Health in Forest County was an individual with a permanent address in the county who passed away elsewhere.

“I have not had one in-county death, in my jurisdiction, that I’m aware of.”

In neighboring Clarion County, coroner Dan Shingledecker said he has been in regular contact with Clarion Hospital and area nursing homes and other care facilities.

“If there is a death, and luckily haven’t been many, they contact me,” Shingledecker noted.

“Everybody is working diligently together and taking this seriously. I absolutely commend all the nurses and doctors and EMS in our area.”

Of the six deaths that have been reported as of Friday among Clarion County residents, several of the deaths have occurred at Clarion Hospital and at least one has occurred at UPMC Northwest, according to Shingledecker.

Venango County Coroner Christina Rugh recently reported several deaths in Venango County, some of which still had not been added to the county’s total count by the Department of Health as of Friday.

Like Wimer, Rugh noted that serious delays are being caused by the way the deaths are being reported.

Although the Department of Health has encouraged anyone in charge of death certificates to file them through an electronic system known as EDRS, many doctors are still filing their paperwork manually, using a Medical Certification Worksheet, according to Rugh.

That paperwork is then faxed to a funeral home, and the funeral home faxes it to the Department of Vital Records. Once it reaches that destination, it is finally entered into the electronic system.

“The lag time is with that manual entering of information once the medical certification gets faxed in.”

She noted that the online system is currently reporting medical certifications are taking two to five days to process.

“This is a frustration for coroners,” Rugh said.

In Jefferson County, coroner Brenda Shumaker said she had yet to receive word of any COVID-19 deaths that have occurred within Jefferson County and noted that Jefferson County Director of Emergency Services Tracy Zents has been in contact with the Department of Health.

As of Friday, the Department of Health reported a total of four deaths among Jefferson County residents.

“According to what the Department of Health told me, if someone was in a nursing home somewhere else or something like that but utilized a home address in Jefferson County, that would be listed on their death certificate, and it would count as a Jefferson County death,” Zents said.

“The same thing would happen if someone from Jefferson County was visiting or at a second home when they died. That could be listed as a Jefferson County death, as well.”

Zents noted that while he couldn’t confirm that any of the deaths reported for Jefferson County by the Department of Health actually occurred within the county, he can confirm the recent rise in cases in the local area are a cause for concern.

“If you look at the testing being done and the amount of cases, there’s more probable and confirmed tests than negative tests now. We’re definitely keeping a close eye on things and coming up with our next plan.”

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