State Medical Examiners Commission makes policy change in COVID death certificates

Covid Death Reporting Change

SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) -Medical examiners across the state are beginning to see relief after a policy change was made allowing doctors to certify COVID deaths.

The Florida Medical Examiners Commission moved to change a decades long policy after months of death certification backlog and an overwhelming amount of added work to medical examiners across the state.

The chairman of the Florida Medical Examiners commission, Dr. Stephen Nelson, tells ABC7 the reason they were doing the death certificates for COVID cases in the first place is because of the Florida Mortuary Operations Response System, FEMORS. It’s a system designed to be used in an event of a disaster like a public health crisis. Dr. Nelson says the system was never intended to handle the overwhelming amount of deaths the pandemic has brought for such a long period of time. He says it’s the reason the commission decided to change the policy allowing doctors to sign COVID-19 death certificates.

Medical examiners like the ones on the Suncoast say this change will cut their workload in half.

“It kept us from starting to drown under the weight of all those deaths,” said Florida District 12 Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Russell Vega. “It was more than we could handle in a timely fashion.”

Doctor Russell Vega is the Chief Medical Examiner on the Suncoast and he says when the change of policy went into effect on August 14 they were backlogged by 30 deaths. District 12 covers Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

“Our peak was a week or so prior, maybe a little more than that, when we were averaging ten to twelve death reports per day which easily more than doubled are usual death reporting a day when you take the COVID cases out of it, and that’s without the regular cases we were supposed to be getting,” said Dr. Vega.

Dr. Stephen says with limited staffing and unrelated COVID deaths also in the workload it was becoming a big issue for medical examiners across Florida that needed to be addressed.

"We had to confirm and receive reports of positive test results first and then we had to get medical records, sometimes, from multiple facilities," said Dr. Vega.

Doctor Vega says sometimes they didn’t receive records for days, or weeks, which slowed the process down even more.

“The bodies were being held up or not being released as quickly as they could have or should’ve been. And that the deaths weren’t getting certified in a timely fashion, so the information was getting delayed in terms of it actually being available to the state,” said Dr. Vega.

So what does this mean for healthcare workers?

”Will there be an increased workload for the physicians that have to sign them? Yes, but I think it will be very minimal,” said Dr. Vega

ABC7 reached out to area hospitals and doctors to find out what they thought about the change. The team at Sarasota Memorial Hospital got back to us and said transferring COVID-related deaths to the medical examiner’s office added an extra and time-consuming layer to examiners.

“With regard to medical examiner jurisdiction, COVID-19 deaths will be treated the same as any other natural death,said the SMH communications director, Kim Savage. “Just like other natural deaths, there may be instances in which COVID-19 deaths should be reported to the medical examiner – for example, when a death occurs in the ER without an attending or primary care physician to sign the death certificate, or when there are concerns about potential trauma or overdose.”

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