Coronavirus deaths rising in 30 US states amid winter surge

FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2021 photo provided by the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, National Guard members assisting with processing COVID-19 deaths, placing them into temporary storage at the medical examiner-coroner's office in Los Angeles. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths is rising in 30 states and the District of Columbia, and on Monday, Jan 18, 2021, the U.S. was approaching 398,000, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, by far the highest of any country in the world. (Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner via AP, File)

Republican lawmakers are reviving legislation that would require the Department of Health to allow coroners to investigate deaths in which the cause of death is suspected of being COVID-19 or another infectious disease.

Throughout the pandemic, the state has been treating COVID deaths as natural deaths that don’t require an investigation by coroners.

County coroners maintain they should be involved in investigating the cause of deaths when COVID is suspected because they are typically contacted by local emergency responders and funeral directors about the circumstances involving deaths.

Wolf vetoed a similar bill last fall, saying it would create an unnecessary additional layer of reporting and "cause delays in the reporting of health information, which would jeopardize public health.”

The COVID pandemic had claimed 27,259 lives in Pennsylvania, as of Wednesday, according to the Department of Health.

Republican lawmakers said the measure would provide needed transparency to help local officials feel confident that they are being informed appropriately, said state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair County, who is the prime sponsor of the legislation, reintroduced in March as Senate Bill 327.

“The Department of Health has no right to determine which deaths are to be certified of coroners,” Ward said. “This legislation would require the DOH to give Pennsylvanians the transparent government they deserve,” she said, adding, “it shouldn’t be remotely controversial.”

Ward was joined by House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, a former county coroner.

Benninghoff said that since most rural counties don’t have local health departments, the county coroner typically tackles many of the tasks that a health department does. The Department of Health’s unwillingness to involve coroners in COVID death investigations interfered with efforts by county coroners to do their jobs, he said.

“Now is not a time to have turf battles,” he said.

Ward’s legislation has been referred to the Senate local government committee, where it has yet to come up for a vote this year.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

 

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CNHI PA State Reporter

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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