Adams County Coroner Pat Felix expressed concern about COVID-19 numbers released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH).
“The public needs to know the numbers they’re showing are not correct,” Felix said Thursday.
“I issued three death certificates for people who had COVID-19 diagnoses,” but the state website shows different totals, she said.
The website Wednesday showed a cumulative total of two deaths in Adams, but that figure dropped to one Thursday.
“My job is to serve the citizens of the county with accuracy, and this isn’t accurate,” Felix said.
“By the DOH putting presumptive cases into the daily count they are inflating the numbers with no proof of that. I know everyone wants data on this pandemic but make the numbers real and don’t presume anything. Make the DOH be responsible for accurate information to the public,” she wrote Wednesday in an email to local legislators.
The DOH’s staffing and the volume of information may be factors, but a legal question is also involved, Felix said.
State law requires deaths caused by contagious diseases be reported to coroners, but the DOH said last month COVID-19 deaths can only be reported by the state’s Electronic Death Registration System (EDRS), according to Felix.
Some coroners’ offices “are having issues with the DOH not accepting the death certificates stating the coroners cannot certify COVID-19 deaths. The EDRS staff have no right to determine what deaths are to be certified by coroners. Some coroners are reporting the reason given to them is this is a natural death and needs to be signed by a doctor,” which differs from the normal procedure, Felix wrote in the email.
Felix said she has heard allegations from fellow coroners that the DOH has changed the cause of death on certificates, or recorded deaths according to the deceased’s place of residence rather than where the death occurred, which is the usual practice. Felix is unaware of those things occurring in connection with deaths in Adams County, she said.
Delays by the state in finalizing death certificates have led to delays in burials, but not in Adams County, Felix said.
“Just about everyone in Adams County is not on that system,” Felix said, referring to the EDRS, but her office is able to use the system, and can report deaths on behalf of nursing homes, hospices, doctors, and hospitals. All such local entities have been extremely cooperative in providing information about deaths, whether related to the coronavirus or not, Felix said
Felix said she contacted legislators in hope they will “band together” and “try to do something to stop this madness.”
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-33, has dropped DOH figures from his daily email updates.
He did so because “they are conflating the numbers of COVID-19 positive cases and the COVID-19 presumed cases. Additionally, at least six county coroners dispute the number of deaths reported by DOH,” according to his update Thursday.
Accurate figures are vital because “data is going to drive the reopening of the state,” state Rep. Torren Ecker, R-193, said Thursday.
Felix is “not alone” among coroners in expressing concern about “a lack of communication with the DOH, Ecker said.
“Coroners aren’t actually being given access” to the process to the extent they should be, Ecker said.
Ecker said he will probably support a bill introduced by Sen. Judy Ward, R-30, to clarify that all deaths suspected to relate to COVID-19 shall be referred to coroners.
Some concerns center on how death certificates are being tallied when they list COVID-19 along with some other cause of death, Ecker said.
To a certain extent, the issue may also reflect a “dispute” between coroners and hospital systems, Ecker said.
Legislators have repeatedly posed questions about the reporting system, but “we haven’t really got a clear answer,” Ecker said. He pledged to continue to make inquires.
Coroners “should have a hand” in how figures are compiled and reported, state Rep. Dan Moul, R-91, said Thursday.
Such matters should not be left in the hands of non-elected health department officials, he said.
Coroners “are getting mixed signals” and “the numbers are jumping around,” Moul said.
Moul said legislators have been questioning the DOH, and he plans to discuss the issue further with fellow legislators whom he terms the “Common Sense Caucus.”