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Arkansas coroner answers questions surrounding reporting COVID-19 deaths

"Can the COVID virus alone kill someone? Sure it can, but the majority of those that we are seeing are those who have major underlying conditions already."

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — One of the most difficult— but also the most important—aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the deaths. Reporting death is not easy. Not for coroners, for the state health department, and not for us.

But it's the reason we're all being asked to do what we're doing. 

Since this pandemic began, remaining in constant contact with coroners across our state has become a new norm. Often, they are the first to know of COVID-19 deaths in their communities. 

But even with their expertise, along with the Arkansas Department of Health's death reporting, there are discrepancies—and some families are confused.

"Our job doesn't end in a pandemic – our job really gets busy in a pandemic." 

Kevin Cleghorn is the head of the Arkansas Coroners Association and is on the front lines, reporting deaths in this pandemic. Getting it right is his top priority.

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"We have an obligation to investigate these deaths and make sure our families are taken care of and they have the right answers," said Cleghorn. 

Coroners are often the first in their communities to learn of COVID-19 deaths. And it's their responsibility to then report it to the ADH. 

"We have people monitoring the death certificates that come in and making sure they're consistent with what we know and we try to resolve any inconsistencies. It's possible, as with any illness, it never gets reported 100% correctly. But we want to get it as close as possible," said state epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha.

But the latest CDC death report suggests the death toll in this pandemic is far higher than what is being reported.  Part of that is simply a lag in reporting. But it raises questions about what exactly constitutes a COVID-19 death.

"Just because we're in a pandemic, that does not mean people aren't going to die from cardiovascular disease. It does not mean they're not gonna die from congestive heart failure, COPD, accidental deaths, etc." 

Just yesterday, an Arkansas woman who asked to remain anonymous reached out to THV11 to share her story, saying "My mother was 91 when she passed. She had been in hospice since January.  I feel the diagnosis of 'respiratory failure due to COVID-19' is not true. To add a death due to the virus just to inflate the numbers is not right."

"I could see why people would not want to consider that as the primary cause of death. That person was already frail, near the end of their life and they were in hospice for other reasons, so this was likely a complicating factor. But likely, the other reason would have caused the death."

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Yet her death is on the COVID-19 list in Arkansas, along with so many more elderly, in nursing homes. Not always fair, said coroner Kevin Cleghorn, but necessary to have accurate information in a pandemic.

"If it was a contributing factor, yes. Can the COVID virus alone kill someone? Sure it can, but the majority of those that we are seeing are those who have major underlying conditions already."

"We still have a lot to learn about this illness, that's why accurate statistical data is so crucial. We need to make sure whether these deaths are COVID related or not and not just name every death as COVID related."

Again, the official death toll in Arkansas now stands at 59. 

Kevin Cleghorn said his belief is that in a pandemic, the public has the right to know if there is a public health risk in their community and says coroners are committed to reporting accurate information on deaths.