Coroner Jeff Lees

Cambria County Coroner Jeff Lees describes the safety equipment that Chief Deputy Coroner Joe Hribar is demonstrating at their fifth-floor office at Central Park Complex in Johnstown on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Hribar is wearing a N-95 respiratory mask and Tyvek body suit with gloves.

For county coroners, a string of tests might be needed to establish a cause of death.

Now, they’re adding one that could protect lives, too.

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, coroners across the state are taking both precautionary and proactive steps when it comes to deceased individuals who may have had symptoms of the new coronavirus – using nasal “swab” kits, when necessary, Cambria County Coroner Jeff Lees said.

“It’s our job to determine what caused them to die – but in this case, if that person was sick there may be a risk to their family members, my deputies or to first responders,” Lees said. 

“We might need an answer.”

Lees said many fatal coronavirus cases statewide are obvious. A man or woman suffering with the contagious disease will have been treated for the virus before passing away in a hospital setting.

But it’s not always going to be that simple, he said.

An investigation might take investigators into a family home – or a residence where someone died alone – and the reason for the death might not be as apparent.

“Right now, we’re doing more screenings – making sure we ask the right questions – before we get on scene so we know what we’re getting into,” Bedford County Coroner Rusty Styer said.

If there’s indications certain upper respiratory or flu-like symptoms were an issue before the individual died, responders need to know, Lees and Styer said.

Like emergency personnel, coroners’ offices have protective garb – medical masks, gloves and other attire – to help reduce the risk of infectious disease exposure. 

In harm’s way

When someone dies, coroners cannot practice social distancing, Pennsylvania State Coroners Association President Charles Kiessling Jr. said.

Across the state, there are going to be cases where responders – coroners included – have to enter hazardous environments.

“We can’t stop at the doorway and wait for someone else to do what we’re there to do,” said Kiessling, veteran coroner in Lycoming County. “It’s part of our job and hopefully, while working with families ... we’ll be able to reduce the spread of this virus.”

For small, rural counties, there’s an ever-present need for a coroner’s staff to protect themselves, Styer said.

With the outbreak continuing, Styer and his chief deputy, Rocky Fetter, have stopped responding to death scenes together.

“We’re a three-person office,” Styer said. “And if we we’re both quarantined for 14 days, our office would effectively shut down. That can’t happen.”

The Centers for Disease Control is still learning about COVID-19 – a novel strain of coronavirus – and how it spreads. Much like influenza, the main method is believed to be through exposure to respiratory droplets released when someone sneezes or coughs nearby.

For someone already found deceased, that isn’t a concern. But the CDC acknowledges that it’s possible someone handling that individual could come into contact with an object – or even a surface inside a home – that has the virus on it, their website shows. The CDC urges protective gear and caution for anyone handling a coronavirus victim’s body.

Testing ‘when necessary’

Lees said he is awaiting results from one coronavirus test related to an investigation in the northern half of Cambria County.

He said the tests won’t be standard procedure, even among potential coronavirus deaths.

Oftentimes, it won’t be necessary, he said.

If there are indications that a deceased individual might have had the coronavirus before death, Lees said the Centers for Disease Control will be contacted to discuss the case.

He said details surrounding the death – including the potential it may have created a public health risk – will be weighed.

“If they agree a test is warranted, we’ll do it,” he said.

Differences, distances

Lees said his staff typically greets grieving family members with a handshake – and there are times they serve as a shoulder to cry on during difficult moments.

In recent weeks, deputies have had to keep their distance, whenever possible.

“One of the first things we’re doing now is having to explain that now – because we don’t want to offend anyone,” he said. “I never thought we’d have to stand 6 feet away from a family.”

It’s another example of the strange new world the pandemic has created, he said.

“With our disaster response team, we’ve been trained for what we have to consider when you’re entering a situation where there’s a risk for exposure,” Lees said. “But it’s usually a situation where you might have a bunch of cases all confined in one area. You know what to expect.

“With this, it’s nationwide. It’s everywhere.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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