You can trust Utah’s coronavirus death toll, state medical examiner says

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Erik Christensen, testifying in court in this 2015 file photo, says every death under his jurisdiction is being screened for coronavirus symptoms.

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Utah’s chief medical examiner says every death under his jurisdiction is being screened for coronavirus symptoms and every corpse brought to his office is receiving a post-mortem COVID-19 test.

Utah’s death toll stood at 13 on Thursday.

“I don’t have any reason to doubt that number,” Erik Christensen said in a telephone interview.

There have been questions elsewhere in the United States a about whether coronavirus deaths are being over- or undercounted. Testing for the coronavirus can still be scarce, and there is a fear some of the infected are dying without their symptoms being documented or that COVID-19 is assumed as the cause of death.

Christensen, whose office is part of the Utah Department of Health, said every death in which the coronavirus is the primary or contributory cause is being listed on the state’s official COVID-19 tally and on death certificates. The coronavirus can be a secondary cause in patients who had underlying problems.

"COVID probably exacerbated their underlying illness — cancer, heart or lung disease — and led to their death now as opposed to some other time,” Christensen said, giving examples.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Medical teams test patients at the drive-thru testing center at the Timpanogos Regional Medical Center in Orem, Tuesday April 7, 2020

For people who die before anyone can make a diagnosis, Christensen said, his death investigators have been told to ask whether the deceased had any coronavirus symptoms.

“We are screening for symptoms at the death scene so we can do those examinations with appropriate [personal protective equipment] and in isolation,” Christensen said. “We have done about 30 or so cases this way thus far."

Lehi Rodriguez, one of the owners of Serenity Funeral Home, said his mortuary recently implemented a new protocol. When his staffers pick up a body from a hospice or another location, they ask whether the deceased showed symptoms of COVID-19. If yes, Rodriguez said, they notify the medical examiner, who decides how to proceed.

“We’re just trying to take every precaution," Rodriguez said, “and be as responsible as we can to protect the community.”

As of this week, all bodies that come into the medical examiner’s office are receiving COVID-19 tests, Christensen said, even if the people died in a car crash or from something else that had nothing to do with the coronavirus. No positive results have come from examinations done at the medical examiner’s office thus far.

Those test results have been added to the state’s official counts. As of Thursday, there had been 38,373 tests in Utah for the coronavirus with 1,976 positives.

People who are diagnosed with the coronavirus before death are not being brought to the examiner’s office for an autopsy, Christensen said. He and the pathologists who work for him typically do not autopsy people who die from known natural causes, he explained, and doing so for coronavirus patients might risk exposing his staffers to the virus.

While Christensen said he is unaware of any transmissions during autopsies, his staffers have been handling any suspected coronavirus cases in an isolated part of their facility in Taylorsville. They have been deferring autopsy procedures that might generate airborne droplets, he said, until they receive results of the post-mortem coronavirus tests.

Christensen said the Department of Health has created redundancies to ensure no COVID-19 deaths escape attention. One of those redundancies is at the Office of Vital Records and Statistics.

Anytime an attending physician submits a death certificate mentioning COVID-19 or the coronavirus, Christensen said, a computer creates an alert to notify the medical examiner’s office.