Broader Coronavirus Testing In Recent Deaths Sought

Flowers for people buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery. (Chava Sanchez/Laist)

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As L.A. residents have died during the pandemic, it's been difficult for some families to know if a relative had the coronavirus, and if COVID-19 contributed to the person's death.

If they died at a hospital, or other medical setting, a doctor records the cause of death. But if they died at home, or elsewhere, it will only be investigated if the County Medical Examiner-Coroner looks into it as an "unexpected and untimely death."

So even though the coroner's office does have a policy to safely test bodies in its jurisidiction, it means most deaths in L.A. County have not been investigated for the virus.

On Tuesday, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to ask the coroner to come up with a plan to offer wider coronavirus testing of people who've died recently — even if the death is not under investigation by the coroner's office.


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The board also wants the coroner to explain how his office decides which recently deceased persons to test for COVID-19, and for a website and phone numbers to be set up so families can ask to have their relative tested for the virus.

"Families who believe that COVID-19 may have played a part in the passing of their loved ones who were unable to be tested in a timely manner, are concerned about whether COVID-19 was a factor causing their death," Supervisor Hilda Solis wrote in her motion to the board.

Family members might worry they are at risk of infection if they were around the person who died, she said.

"This has made the grieving process for families a lot more stressful and challenging," Solis wrote.

A KPCC/LAist investigation found that the numbers of deaths at home from all causes spiked 53% in April above the numbers of deaths in the same month last year.

The coroner's office did not have a ready explanation last week to account for the excess deaths at home. The possibilities include COVID-19, but also deaths of people who were avoiding seeking medical care out of fear of getting infected at a hospital.

Excess deaths in numbers above what might be expected based on previous years is something that's being seen all over the country and may be contributing to an official undercount of deaths from COVID-19.

Most deaths in L.A. County occur in hospitals, nursing homes or other settings staffed by doctors. And those doctors are the ones to provide the cause of death listed on the death certificate. Bodies are generally sent to on-site morgues and then removed to funeral homes without a coroner's visit.

Independent testing by the coroner's office might help identify hospitals and nursing homes where coronavirus was present in people whose death certificates list deaths from other causes.