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Coroners, State Health Officials At Odds Over Who Counts COVID-19 Deaths

John Minchillo


On today's program: Coroners say they can help officials get an accurate count of COVID-19 victims; how federal prisoners are faring since local courts expedited the release of some jail inmates; and Port Authority urges people to stay home despite the financial hit. 

Should coroners investigate possible COVID-19 deaths?
(00:00 — 08:44) 

The Pennsylvania Coroners Association wants to work more closely with the state Department of Health to make sure doctors and other medical staffers get an accurate count of the deadly effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sara Simon of the news collaborative Spotlight PA reports that medical examiners and coroners disagree with state officials about what their role should be in the crisis. They’re citing a statute that says their role is to investigate deaths known or suspected to be due to contagious disease or constituting a public hazard.

The state health department disagrees, Simon says. COVID-19 deaths are currently considered “natural,” or not suspicious, and not beholden to those rules.

Health care professionals have four days to enter a confirmed or suspected case into the Electronic Death Registration System, which coroners and medical examiners already use to communicate data directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coroners tell Simon that if state officials truly want fast and accurate reporting, they should yield those responsibilities to people already familiar with the technology.

"So what the coroners are saying is, 'Look, let us take that burden from medical professionals. They don't need to be in charge of that. Let them focus on treating patients.'"

Simon says some coroners emphasized their existing relationships with first responders and funeral homes, which are at risk if a body isn't designated as potentially infected. While coroners usually do not investigate deaths that occur in hospitals and nursing homes, they can and do investigate when people die at home or in the community.

Federal inmates left out of recent county jail releases
(08:51 — 13:10)

By Monday, local and state authorities had released around 950 people from the Allegheny County Jail, but as 90.5 WESA’s An-Li Herring reports, the jail also houses about 250 people being tried in federal court – and federal prosecutors are making it much harder for those prisoners to be released.

Ridership and revenue are down for Port Authority
(13:15 — 17:58)

The coronavirus outbreak presents a dual challenge for transit agencies; they must continue to connect people to work, grocery stores and health care but with dramatically decreased revenue as ridership plunges.

90.5 WESA’s Margaret J. Krauss reports that in order to safely accommodate riders and protect operators, passenger caps were introduced Monday. Until further notice, 35-foot buses carry 10 riders, 40-foot buses carry 15 riders, and 25 people are permitted on 60-foot buses and light rail vehicles. CEO Katharine Kelleman shares more.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kiley Koscinski is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She previously produced The Confluence and Morning Edition. Before coming to WESA, she worked as an assignment desk editor and producer at 1020 AM KDKA. She can be reached at
Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago.
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