JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A north Mississippi coroner’s claim that the Mississippi State Dept. of Health inaccurately recorded deaths as caused by COVID-19 -- even if the virus played no role in that death -- has been debunked by 3 On Your Side and deemed “ridiculous” by the agency.
DeSoto County Coroner Josh Pounders posted at length about his concerns last week, saying he had 24 cases in July where people who had tested positive for the virus later died.
“All of the individuals who have died that were [positive] for covid (sic) at some point have all had major medical problems prior to contracting covid [sic],” Pounders wrote. “Many of these covid (sic) deaths are of people who were on (sic) hospice care with a terminal diagnoses (sic).”
Pounders said MSDH demanded that those 24 deaths be reported as COVID-19 deaths.
Coroners in Hinds, Monroe and Simpson counties told 3 On Your Side that MSDH has never demanded that of them.
In addition, the spokesperson for the state health department addressed the claim head-on, calling it “unfounded” in an emailed statement.
“It is ridiculous to suggest that the MSDH tells coroners what to do regarding their diagnosis of death. I found the coroner’s comments article utterly unfounded and damaging to those working on the frontlines (sic) to fight COVID-19 and the many Mississippians who need to have accurate information,” said Liz Sharlot, who serves as director of communications for the state agency.
Sharlot reiterated that the agency has addressed concerns over death reporting on numerous occasions and that deaths are reported to MSDH in a variety of ways.
“Hospitals, physicians, and nursing homes report COVID-19 related deaths directly to MSDH for inpatients or residents that they have been providing care for and are COVID-19 positive,” Sharlot said. “COVID-19 is having an impact on a number of vulnerable populations with underlying medical problems. It is incumbent upon all of us to take COVID-19 seriously and take responsibility to put in place those measures to prevent transmission and protect the vulnerable populations. Each death that occurs is saddening and certainly we all wish there were fewer."
Simpson County Coroner Terry Tutor told 3 On Your Side MSDH specifically says not to list a death as being caused by COVID simply because of a positive test.
That guidance, listed on the agency’s website, says if a patient was confirmed to have COVID-19 but the cause of death was not related to the virus nor did it contribute to the death, “it should not be included in Part I or II of the death certificate.”
During Tuesday’s press briefing on the state’s COVID-19 response, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs specifically addressed this concern.
“Please know that the person who puts the cause of death on the death certificates are the physicians and the coroners,” Dobbs said. “We have no role in assigning the cause of death on the death certificates.”
Dobbs said there have also been instances where health officials investigated death certificates with coronavirus listed and discover that the virus was not relevant to their death. In those cases, he said, the death is discounted, or taken away, from the total.
Monroe County Coroner Alan Gurley said he has never listed COVID as a primary cause of death, but rather a contributing factor.
MSDH data for his county shows those deaths still count as COVID-19 deaths, even if the virus wasn’t the primary cause.
Dobbs did say there are rare cases where an investigation shows strong evidence that someone died of coronavirus despite not being tested, a distinction Pounders did not mention in his Facebook post.
“Whenever we get those, we do vet them to make sure they have syndromes such as pneumonial or respiratory distress syndrome consistent with coronavirus before we accept that as a possible cause of death.”
Since the pandemic began, Dobbs said Tuesday that 65 deaths have been designated as possibly caused by coronavirus, representing 3 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
Pounders’ claims in the Facebook post seem to echo political sentiment, with the DeSoto County coroner blaming reporters and “pandemic fear” for a rise in cardiopulmonary deaths, an opinion he posted without citing evidence that would back that claim up.
3 On Your Side reached out to Pounders to offer him the chance to respond to MSDH’s statement, but he did not do so.
Earlier this week, Pounders gave permission on a social media post for reporters to quote his now-viral COVID comments, but only if his entire comments were used.
“If you are unable or don’t have the ability to do that. (sic) You can kick rocks as far as I’m concerned,” Pounders said.
3 On Your Side reached out to request an interview with Dobbs specifically on the DeSoto County coroner’s accusations, but Sharlot said that would be unnecessary.
“I don’t feel there is a need to conduct any interviews when the DeSoto County coroner is not a doctor of any kind and our State Health Officer is one of the leading infectious diseases (sic) specialists in the country and not only an MD, but also an MPH (Master of Public Health).”