WASHINGTON — A viral claim that coroners and medical examiners may be mislabeling COVID-19 deaths have been popping up on social media.
One of the more prominent posts came from Candace Owens, a conservative commentator and political activist.
In a tweet and Facebook post, she claimed that, “if you die from heart disease right now, and they determine you to be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 in your post-Mortem, they legally add your death to the #Coronavirus death toll?”
Are people who die from heart disease or other unrelated illnesses counted as COVID-19 deaths if they test positive?
There is no evidence to support Owen’s claim, nor could the VERIFY team find any instances of people being found to be “asymptomatic” COVID-19 carriers after death.
Without being able to analyze each body and test them individually for COVID-19, it’s nearly impossible to prove this hasn’t happened. But Dr. Sally Aiken, the President of the National Association of Medical Examiners said it’s unlikely.
She called the claim a conspiracy theory. She said, “medical examiners and coroners are not part of a conspiracy of death certification to classify all deaths as caused by COVID-19.”
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There has been speculation on social media that the number of COVID-19 deaths is being intentionally inflated. But Dr. Aiken said it is more likely that COVID-19 deaths are actually being undercounted because of lack of testing.
There are multiple reasons Dr. Aiken said Owen’s claims are unrealistic.
First, most “asymptomatic” people aren’t being tested right now. Test-kits are still in demand across much of the nation, and many regions have limited testing to those already showing symptoms. It’s also unlikely that already deceased patients would be tested post-mortem if they appear to have died from something else.
“I’m not sure why a person without symptoms, coming into the hospital for stroke would be tested for COVID-19 anyway,” Dr. Aiken said.
The second reason, Dr. Aikens explained Owen’s claims were unrealistic is that the claims seem to imply there are situations where someone can clearly rule out COVID-19 as a cause of death in infected patients. That is not the case, according to Dr. Aiken.
“Sometimes it isn’t clear how various things relate to one another at death,” Dr. Aiken said. “Certain judgments will be wrong. In the example given, (stroke with COVID-19), it would be important to know if that individual had symptoms of COVID-19. If so, symptoms such as dehydration from COVID-19, or inability to take medications for blood pressure control, may put that person at risk for a stroke. In that case, the cause of death might be listed as 'stroke,' but COVID-19 could be contributory. There is also emerging evidence that COVID-19 infection may have unexpected effects on blood vessels, and circulation, making infected people susceptible to stroke."
The third reason these claims are unrealistic is because of the hodge-podge ways of investigating deaths in the United States, Dr. Aiken said. In addition to the physician medical examiners, there are elected lay coroners, justices of the peace and sheriff coroners operating under various county or state systems. Funding and resources – including COVID-19 tests -- are also uneven across jurisdictions.
Given that, “I don’t believe that all deaths caused by COVID-19 are being counted, and I don’t believe that accurate counting will happen in the short-term future,” Dr. Aiken said.
The cause of death is sometimes a judgment call, she said.
However, she said, “medical examiners and coroners are not part of a conspiracy of death certification to classify all deaths as caused by COVID-19. We are certifying deaths to our best knowledge and belief, based on investigation, medical information, and testing, as always."
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