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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2021 - 2022 Regular Session


Posted: December 7, 2020 11:55 AM
From: Senator Judy Ward
To: All Senate members
Subject: Reporting of COVID-19 Deaths to Coroners
I am reintroducing Senate Bill 1164 of last session, legislation amending the County Code to make clear that all deaths in a county suspected of a disease constituting a health disaster or pandemic (e.g., COVID-19) shall be referred to the county coroner for investigation.
Under current law, the coroner shall investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding a death that appears to have happened in the county in various cases, including a death known or suspected to be due to contagious disease and constituting a public hazard. However, these cases are not being reported to the county coroner. The Department of Health (DOH) is interpreting a provision of the law (the coroner having a view of the body) narrowly that unless coroners have a view of the body they do not need to be notified of a death from contagious disease. As such, coroners would not be notified of deaths within their County if the person died from natural causes, such as COVID-19, within a hospital or facility. This is detrimental to the community and to emergency planning efforts.
To make matters worse, it is my understanding that the COVID-19 death certificates and other coroner death certificates are being held up by DOH Electronic Death Registration System (EDRS) staff for days and even weeks until they determine if these are coroner cases. This is NOT the job of the EDRS staff. Coroners, Physicians, PA’s and CRNP’s are by law to certify the cause of death and complete the death certificate. By holding up death certificates, they are impacting families and funeral directors who are unable to move forward with disposition of the deceased, or open an estate, or file a claim for insurance benefits. The EDRS staff have no right to determine what deaths are to be certified by Coroners or not.
My measure would remove the phrase “having a view of the body” and make clear that certain circumstances of death shall be reported to the coroner, including any disease constituting a health disaster emergency or pandemic.
Coroners have also experienced problems with accessing information on reported deaths of COVID-19 or death certificates from DOH in connection with their official duties unless they paid a fee or get a subpoena. The bill requires the DOH to provide the coroner with electronic access to appropriate databases for the following information: a)  Information reportable under the Disease Prevention and Control Law for deaths known or suspected to be due to a contagious disease constituting a public health emergency or b) Death certificates. It prohibits DOH from charging a fee to the coroner for electronic access to data, and from requiring the coroner to obtain a subpoena. Finally, it requires the coroner to follow all applicable Federal and State laws, regulations and confidentiality standards for the data they obtained.
Because of these actions, there is minimal accuracy of reporting of the COVID-19 deaths. All COVID-19 deaths should be reported to the coroners and medical examiners for more accurate reporting of the deaths and for the safety and well-being of our communities.
During the 2019-20 session, Senate Bill 1164 was approved by the Senate and House but vetoed by Governor Wolf. The governor’s veto message claimed that the measure would have delayed reporting and jeopardized public health and safety. This idea is completely inaccurate; in fact, it would do the exact opposite of what the governor claims. Instead of having multiple sets of conflicting numbers, the bill would have provided a significant level of transparency and cooperation without placing any significant new burdens on any health care provider or any level of government.
The Pennsylvania State Coroners Association is supportive of the measure. 
Please join me in co-sponsoring this important measure.

Introduced as SB327