Kentucky coroners grapple with COVID-19-related deaths

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HENRY COUNTY, Ky. (WTVQ) – With COVID-related deaths on the rise around the country, some coroners are finding themselves having more and more conversations with families over listing COVID-19 as a cause of death.

Henry County Coroner, and liaison to Kentucky’s Coroners Association, Jimmy Pollard, said some coroners are being asked by families to list, or leave out, that their loved one’s death was COVID-related.

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“Really, just like a lot of things with being a coroner, it’s not easy,” Pollard said.

Asking to leave off COVID on the death certificate is what National Public Radio calls, “disenfranchising death.” It’s a term that refers to a death people are uncomfortable talking about because of social norms. The article says it occurs when people don’t feel they have the right to openly express their grief because of the way their loved one died.

“There’s a lot of proud families out there and they think this is a bad thing. It’s not,” Pollard said.

However, because it is a legal document, Pollard said it’s not a choice coroners can make.

Pollard said coroners are also facing additional pressure from families since FEMA announced grants that would help cover funeral expenses for people who died from COVID-19.

He said more Kentuckians are requesting a second look if a family member’s death is not attributed to the virus.

However, again, because it is a legal document, Pollard said a death certificate can’t be amended without medical evidence.

He said he’s even gotten calls from the health department when he’s signed off on COVID-related deaths and had to show proof.

Pollard said both situations are tough to deal with, and he understands where families are coming from.

“I recommend to them to just go and speak with the family,” Pollard said of his advice to coroners across the state. “Explain your situation as a coroner and what you have to do.”

Pollard said he, and coroners across the state, are willing to help amend certificates to list COVID-19 as a cause of death when they can, but hopes people can understand when they can’t.