By Jennifer Bianca Browning, Senior Analyst, ODCA
All reported COVID-19 deaths that occur in the District of Columbia are confirmed, not probable.
This small detail might not seem like much, but it’s huge, thanks to a major effort from a lesser-known department of the District government, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).
As we detail in our newest report on COVID-19 data, OCME made the call early in the pandemic to certify all potential COVID-19 deaths that occur in the District of Columbia to confirm whether the death was from COVID-19.
As early as January 2020, OCME staff started investigating possible COVID-19 deaths, inquiring about flu-like symptoms and recent travel since no test was available. OCME also decided to bring all bodies from potential COVID-19 deaths to its facility, including deaths occurring at hospitals.
The District of Columbia has been the only state to accomplish both having its Medical Examiner’s office certify all COVID-19 deaths and take possession of all bodies.
It turns out that these two decisions early on by OCME avoided what have been two key problems that played out nationally as cases surged: death certification quality and limited hospital morgue capacity. The National Center for Health Statistics has seen problems with death certifications nationally in about 20%-30% of reported COVID-19 deaths. OCME’s decision to certify all COVID-19 deaths means that highly trained medical examiners are looking at each potential COVID-19 death and following one uniform process to confirm a COVID-19 death. This is in contrast to many states that rely on a mix of medical examiners and coroners, who may not even be physicians, to certify deaths.
As the pandemic surged across the country, hospital and funeral home morgues have been overwhelmed, leaving some local and state governments scrambling to provide additional morgue capacity and even deploying the National Guard to assist.
Thankfully, the same scenes never played out in the District. OCME’s decision to bring all bodies to its facility meant that hospital morgues, which have a more limited capacity, would not fill up. OCME even rented refrigerated trucks and established a disaster morgue that could hold 600 bodies. Thankfully, the District did not end up needing all that additional capacity.
We have death certifications down. Now, let’s get full public reporting down, too.
Now after all that praise, we want key death-related data coming from OCME to provide quality COVID-19 death certifications made public. And we want it now!
First, we hope new deaths will be reported ASAP on the www.coronavirus.dc.gov data pages. We’re starting to feel like a broken record on this. We recommended it in the report we published in November 2020 on improvements to D.C.’s COVID-19 dashboard and we highlight it again in our recent COVID-19 data report. But daily deaths are just too important an indicator to leave out! Residents need to be able to see if deaths are increasing or decreasing. They need to be able to see how death numbers compare to earlier stages of the pandemic. Please get a visualization up on the data pages of coronavirus.dc.gov that shows this!
Secondly, OCME diligently prepares an internal report that includes details about the prevalence of co-morbidities among people who have died of COVID-19 and place of death. This is great, but it would be even greater if the public could see this. It’s key information and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be shared with D.C residents. We recommend this be made public in our recent report. If COVID data is your thing and you want to know more about how D.C. is handling it, check out our report.