Last Thursday, Lebanon County coroner Dr. Jeff Yocum learned that the state Department of Health had changed the way it was counting the number of deaths from COVID-19.
“I got a call, ‘Jeez, two people came back to life,'” Yocum, who also operates a family practice in Lebanon, said Friday with a chuckle. “Every day is an adventure now.”
Seriously, though, he said, “the state’s numbers for Lebanon County went down by two.”
State officials on Thursday removed more than 200 probable deaths from the tally of people who had died in Pennsylvania from COVID-19. State Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the change was made in an effort to be transparent after taking a new look at the data.
“At times, there are things we need to review, and potentially revisit the way the data is being analyzed,” she said, according to Spotlight PA. “And this is one of those times.”
That hasn’t changed the numbers so far as Yocum is concerned. The state’s adjustment last week simply brought Pennsylvania’s numbers for Lebanon County in line with the records Yocum had already compiled.
“As of five minutes ago, we had a total of eight” deaths from COVID-19 in Lebanon County, Yocum said during the Friday afternoon interview.
That includes six Lebanon County residents, he noted, and two people from outside the county who died locally.
Yocum said state officials haven’t explained to him why they previously had over-reported the local number of coronavirus-related deaths, or “why they took two people off their list.”
Conversely, on April 14 the state was reporting two deaths from COVID-19 in Lebanon County, while Yocum’s office said there were three, according to an earlier report by LebTown.com.
“The numbers we have are the correct numbers,” Yocum, who is in his seventh four-year term as coroner, said Friday. “I’ll stand by my numbers.”
Yocum is confident, he said, because his office has a good working relationship with the hospitals, doctors, nursing homes, and funeral directors in Lebanon County.
“Lebanon County—this is just a great county to work for,” he said. “I’ve been here a long time, and you develop a lot of relationships. The nursing homes are on board, notifying us of any cases that are COVID-positive. The funeral homes are on board. The hospitals are on board. We’re all on the same page.
He’s less content with the relationship between coroners throughout Pennsylvania and the state Department of Health.
“I have had no issues locally. But around the state, yes, there are issues,” Yocum said. “The Department of Health is under a lot of pressure right now because of the way they’re dealing with the Pennsylvania Coroners Association.”
The Department of Health “has not worked with the Coroners Association as we feel they should,” Yocum added. “They were saying this pandemic is not a coroner’s issue, that the coroners don’t have jurisdiction over this. We disagree.”
The state health department has said physicians should report all COVID-19 deaths to its office in Harrisburg, rather than local coroners. Reporting to coroners isn’t necessary because the deaths are considered “natural,” the state contends.
Coroners, on the other hand, say they should know who dies in their jurisdiction.
According to Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle, it has been “ongoing protocol” for physicians who certify death certificates to enter COVID-19 deaths into the system, Spotlight PA said in a recent report.
But, by not acknowledging what coroners see as their legal obligation, Spotlight PA reported, the Pennsylvania Coroners Association believes that the state risks miscounting the number of deaths, misunderstanding how the virus spreads, and overburdening hospital staff with administrative tasks.
For that reason, Yocum supports the passage of a bill proposed by state Sen. Judy Ward, representing portions of Blair, Cumberland, Franklin, Fulton and Huntingdon counties.
According to an April 22 memorandum posted by Ward to the Senate website, the bill if approved would “make clear that all deaths in a county suspected of COVID-19 shall be referred to the county coroner for investigation.”
A Department of Health policy blocking coroners from having full access to that information, she said in the memorandum, “is detrimental to the community and to emergency planning efforts.”
“Absolutely,” Yocum agreed. “This is what we do for a living. I don’t know what qualifications the people who work for the Department of Health have, but this is what we trained for. That’s why we’re asking for legislative help. We’re supporting that legislation.”
Another issue for coroners, Yocum said, is that sometimes they handle bodies without knowing the cause of death.
“We treat anybody as a potential COVID-positive,” he said. “That’s also true of funeral directors and ambulance crews, really anybody who handles bodies.”
That means wearing masks, gloves and, in many cases, head-to-foot protective gear, he said.
“We try to limit the number of people who handle a body when the cause of death isn’t known,” Yocum said.
Fortunately, he said, his office hasn’t yet encountered a case where they needed to test a body for the presence of COVID-19.
Even so, he said, the facility they use for lab testing “has expressed to us no concern” about the available number of tests, according to Yocum.
Meanwhile, Yocum said his practice has seen a decrease in the number of calls for symptoms related to COVID-19.
“It’s certainly not getting worse as far as I can tell,” he said.
That doesn’t mean it’s time to throw caution to the wind, however.
“I still tell people wash your hands as frequently as you can. Do what you have to do and go home. Lay low until we really see what the numbers are here,” he said. “Stay your distance from people, wear your mask, wash your hands. If we do that, we’ll get through this.”
Yocum believes most people are following instructions to prevent the virus from spreading.
“I don’t see people out as much as they used to be. They’re heeding the warnings,” he said. “Do what we say to do now, and we’re going to be OK. We don’t need this getting worse. We’re on the right track.”
Yocum said it might be time soon, “down the road, to ease some of the restrictions” on businesses that have been forced to close in Pennsylvania.
However, he acknowledged that there’s some concern that a second wave of COVID-19 might follow on the heels of the first. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes on its website that, during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, far more people died in the second wave that followed a few months after the first.
“Do we know what’s coming? Nobody knows that,” Yocum said. “Vaccines are being developed. I think we need to hold off on that comparison.”
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