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Hazardous death notice bill reintroduced by Ward

Previous legislation vetoed by Wolf

State Sen. Judy Ward has reintroduced a bill vetoed by the governor last year that would require deaths from COVID-19 and other diseases that constitute a public hazard to be reported to coroners so they can alert people who’ve been exposed, help survivors get death certifications, keep accurate records and fulfill what they say is their legal responsibility.

The Department of Health has not provided coroners needed access to information on COVID-19 deaths, leading to risks for people whose professions brought them into contact unknowingly with patients and leading to community ignorance and confusion, according to Ward, Republican House Leader Kerry Benninghoff and several coroners — including Blair County Coroner Patricia Ross — at a news conference Wednesday in State College.

The Wolf administration is reviewing Ward’s new bill, which is slightly different than last year’s version, which the governor vetoed out of concern it would delay reporting of COVID-19 deaths, preventing communities from becoming fully aware of pandemic risks; and that it could lead to revelation of protected health information, according to Wolf’s veto letter and an email from his spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger.

If those same issues remain, the governor would oppose the bill again, Kensinger wrote.

The provisions in The County Code that apply to coroners already call for them to investigate “death(s) known or suspected to be due to contagious disease and constituting a health hazard,” the coroners pointed out.

The bill would make that more explicit with the addition of the clause “including any disease constituting a health disaster emergency or pandemic.”

The bill eliminates a preliminary clause that the DoH cited as an obstacle to sharing COVID-19 death data: “the coroner having a view of the body.”

Coroners often don’t see the bodies of COVID-19 victims, according to information provided at the news conference.

The bill explicitly calls for health care facilities, nursing homes, personal care homes and physicians to report COVID-19 deaths to coroners. And it explicitly calls for the DoH to provide “electronic access” to coroners for deaths “known or suspected to be due to a contagious disease constituting a public health emergency or pandemic.”

As a hedge against misuse of that data, the bill states that a “coroner may not disclose, except in aggregate form, a personally identifiable record of an individual’s medical, psychiatric or psychological history or disability status.”

Coroners need to know when a COVID-19 patient has died so they can ensure that first responders, including police, firefighters and ambulance workers who interacted with the patient can take the needed precautionary measures, according to Ross.

Coroners themselves need to know who has died of COVID-19 and other such diseases so they can keep accurate records, officials said at the news conference. And the community needs to know, so community members can take necessary precautions, according to Ward, a Republican from Blair County, and others.

Coroners are especially important for disseminating information about COVID-19 and similar diseases in counties that don’t have a public health department to mitigate risks — for example in nursing homes and hospitals, according to Charles Kiessling Jr., president of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association. That work includes contact tracing, Kiessling said.

The coroners want the administration to create an electronic “bridge” between the Electronic Death Reporting System the DoH uses and the different electronic system the coroners use, Ross said.

There have been assurances that would happen, but it hasn’t yet — although there seems to be a pilot program in place, according to Ross.

Ross said having access to EDRS is important because emergency responders and health providers contact coroners to see if they need to be worried about exposure in cases with COVID-19 deaths.

“We need to be able to give them an answer,” she said.

The lawmakers are hopeful the governor will sign the bill this time.

Advocates for the bill will “try to explain it a little better,” Benninghoff said.

Reportedly, Wolf vetoed the last bill on the recommendation of then Health Secretary Rachel Levine, Ward said.

Levine’s successor, Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam may “see the matter differently,” Ward said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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