Dr. James Gill, the state’s chief medical examiner, told Connecticut legislators Tuesday that his investigators have “identified many deaths” that should have been certified as COVID-19-related but were not, including nursing home and assisted living residents who died during the pandemic.
Gill said many of the cases were discovered during investigations of remains about to be cremated, a procedure the office often conducts to make sure a homicide has not occurred.
“During that cremation review process, we’ve identified many deaths that were COVID deaths that were not certified as COVID deaths,” Gill told members of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. “We went to funeral homes and swabbed people at funeral homes and identified COVID deaths through that mechanism.”
Gill said his office would take such steps when “respiratory failure” was listed as the cause of death.
“Well, is that caused by COVID-19, lung cancer, a drug overdose? We need to know what caused it, so we do further investigation,” Gill wrote in an email to The Associated Press following the committee’s hearing. “If we find out that the person lived in a nursing home and was not tested for COVID-19, we would go and do the testing.”
Gill said a clinician at the nursing home would certify the nursing home deaths.
While he doesn’t have an exact figure as to how many COVID-19 deaths have required further investigation, Gill said the number that his office has uncovered is a “very small part” of the more than 7,500 COVID-associated deaths in Connecticut. But Gill said it’s still important to properly identify whether someone died from COVID.
“Not only do we want to make sure that the death certificate is accurate but there are families, first responders, health aides, etc. who need to know if they may have been exposed to COVID,” he said. “So there is a larger public health issue at stake.”
Gill and his office recently presented details of their efforts to identify unrecognized COVID-19 deaths to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences at the group’s annual meeting. According to their study of 175 postmortem nasal swabs taken at funeral homes in Connecticut between March and October 2020, 110 had “target sequences” unique to the disease caused by the coronavirus. Of those 110 deaths, 47 were initially certified as non-COVID-19-related and 34 were initially certified as “suspected,” “exposure to,” “possible” or “rule out” COVID-19.
The issue of investigating COVID-19 deaths came up when Gill was discussing the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s budget challenges with state lawmakers. The agency has experienced a large increase in workload due to the pandemic, overdoses and homicides.