Who are COVID-19’s local victims? WKBN’s search for more information leads to roadblocks

27 Investigates

WKBN reviewed coronavirus-related death records in Mahoning County but ran into brick walls when requesting those death records elsewhere

Coronavirus, COVID-19 vaccine testing

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(WKBN) – Sorting through the area’s COVID-19 deaths is murky, to say the least.

While statistics are provided, case counts between the county and state health departments in Ohio often vary slightly. Some counties have recently begun providing zip-code level data while others don’t provide that information in their reports.

WKBN previously examined Mahoning County’s coronavirus-related death records to get a better look at where COVID-19 patients are dying and how these deaths are being categorized. But trying to view the same records in other counties has proved challenging.

In Trumbull County, the Warren City Health District has death certificates for all of its coronavirus-related deaths for victims who died in the county. But the health district and the Trumbull County Health Department couldn’t provide records related to Trumbull County residents who died in hospitals outside of the county.

WKBN did obtain Trumbull County’s coronavirus-related death certificates from those who died in Trumbull County. You can see that data below:

Trumbull County’s COVID deaths

Officials with Warren’s health district told WKBN that they never had access to the out-of-county death records while Trumbull County referred WKBN to the Ohio Department of Health.

A spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health responded that they did not have access to the death certificates at the state level. She said the state is provided data on all Ohio residents who died due to COVID-19, but per an agreement with other states, they can only use the data for statistical purposes.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health first directed WKBN to local coroners for those death records, though Mercer County Coroner John Libonati said his office doesn’t have coronavirus-related death certificates on file as they are certified by individual doctors, not the coroner.

He criticized the reporting process that he explained has been poorly organized and executed, likely due to too many hands in the system. He’d like the local coroners to take over the reporting for their individual counties, feeding the information to the top.

Libonati also questions Mercer County’s COVID-19 deaths, saying there have actually been fewer coronavirus deaths than have been reported by the state.

He specifically questions three cases that were previously reported as coronavirus-related deaths in Mercer County, something he also addressed with The Record Argus newspaper:

One, he said, was a resident of a Trumbull County nursing home who he said contracted the disease there before being treated and dying in Mercer County.

Another was a resident of New Jersey who contracted the virus in New Jersey and came to stay in Mercer County before passing away, Libonati said.

The third was a man who died of sudden cardiac arrest and the doctor inadvertently included COVID-19 as secondary to cardiac arrest in the cause of death, though the man had never been tested for COVID, according to Libonati.

While the Pennsylvania Department of Health wouldn’t speak on specific cases, citing patient privacy, Communications Director April Hutchison disputed Libonati’s claims. She responded to WKBN’s request after WKBN sent an email to Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.

Hutchison said deaths are reported based on the victim’s residency that is filed, rather than where they died. This differs slightly from how other deaths are reported by coroners, usually where that person died.

Hutchison said death certificates in the state aren’t considered public documents, so those could not be provided for review. WKBN had been referred to the press office after making a formal request through the state’s Office of Vital Statistics.

Hutchison did say that the state has been working with local coroners through the Coroners Association to keep them in the loop through the process. She said it is a challenge nationwide when reporting COVID-19 deaths as most victims are older and have underlying health conditions.

While the coronavirus may have led to the person’s death, there are usually other factors as well. As such, the state of Pennsylvania follows the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for reporting coronavirus-related deaths. Those deaths are categorized as COVID-19 deaths if they’re confirmed by a laboratory test or if a clinician suspects COVID-19 as the cause of death due to circumstances like having direct exposure to the virus before the person’s death. Those deaths are listed as “probable” or “presumed” deaths, though they’re included in the daily reports.

Hutchison said people should trust in the process, as the clinicians verifying the deaths are regulated by the state. She said it takes an extraordinary effort in order to report coronavirus cases daily, as the state has been doing during the pandemic.

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