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Blair County reports first COVID-19 death

Blair County has its first COVID-19 death and Cambria and Bedford counties each recorded their second deaths on Monday, even though none of the three are new.

All of the changes surfaced as the state Department of Health adjusted how it has begun to list death statistics.

In addition to those three deaths, Blair County Coroner Patty Ross reported a 73-year-old inmate from the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon died at UPMC Altoona Sunday night. The man was serving a life sentence. It was not immediately known in which county that death will be reported

The Health Department has stopped automatically attributing nursing and personal care home deaths to counties where the long-term facilities are located, attributing those deaths instead to the deceased’s counties of legal residence, as named by families on death certificates, according to State Health Department spokesman Nate Wardle.

Not everyone in a nursing or personal care home names the facility as their legal residence, Wardle wrote in an email.

The change has led to separate lists for deaths on the department’s website — a new one with death numbers based on counties of legal residence and an older one with death numbers for nursing homes, based on the counties where the homes are located.

The deaths are not double-counted, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.

The changes in the way nursing home cases are handled are in keeping with the Electronic Death Registration System, which the department will now use for death statistics, instead of the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System, which it will continue to use for case counts, Wardle said.

The changes are also in keeping with the practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Levine said.

The new listing of death totals based on counties of legal residence includes the percentages for each county of the state’s COVID-19 death total and the rate for each county of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents.

Blair, Bedford and Cambria are listed as having 0 percent of the state’s COVID-19 death total of 63,056, because of their minimal death counts, while Centre is listed as having 0.1 percent of the state’s total.

Blair’s rate of deaths per 100,000 residents is 0.8 percent; Bedford’s is 4.2 percent; Cambria’s 1.5 percent and Centre’s 3.1 percent. Clearfield and Huntingdon counties are not listed, because they have no official COVID-19 deaths.

The coroners offices of Bedford and Cambria counties didn’t return phone messages left in hopes of obtaining details on those counties’ new death listings.

Apart from its new policy on attribution of nursing home deaths, the DoH has generally attributed COVID-19 deaths to the counties where those who died were living most recently, in contrast to the law-based policy for coroners, who attribute all deaths to the counties where the deaths occurred, according to Ross, the Blair coroner.

The coroners have been in a running dispute with the DoH over COVID-19 death reporting, Ross said.

The department doesn’t want coroners to report COVID-19 deaths, arguing that they’re “natural” deaths and not in the coroners’ bailiwick, according to Ross.

“They don’t want us signing the death certificate,” she said. “They say we’re misinterpreting the coroner’s law.”

But COVID-19 deaths do come under coroners’ jurisdiction, because coroners are responsible to report deaths from contagious diseases that cause a public hazard, Ross said.

The huge disruption that has characterized society’s response is the best argument that COVID-19 is a public hazard, according to Ross.

Coroners need to be involved so they can inform ambulance workers, firefighters, police and others who may not be aware they’ve come in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, so they can take precautions, Ross said.

The DoH’s main interest is in statistics, Ross said.

Levine has said repeatedly on her daily webcasts that the department is working with the coroners to come to an accommodation.

She frequently has applied a favorable adjective to the coroners, calling them “excellent” and “great.”

One of the difficulties, however, is that “there are 67 of them,” she has said.

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