EL PASO COUNTY — For those working at the El Paso County Coroner's Office, there's no avoiding the harsh realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the staff is facing a new challenge, that the coroner says is fueled by conspiracy theories.
The job of the El Paso County Coroner's Office is to investigate sudden or unexpected deaths, including those that constitute a public health risk, such as COVID-19. At the end of last week, at least three families called or visited the coroner's office, and demanded the coroner remove the COVID-19 diagnoses from their loved one's death certificates.
The El Paso County Coroner, Dr. Leon Kelly, is also the chief medical examiner at the office. Dr. Kelly said the angry calls and visits are rooted in a conspiracy theory. "This false belief, that somehow me as the coroner, or our office, or El Paso County, or the physician's that cared for their loved one, are receiving money or are being paid to put that on the death certificate... That is not true, that is a lie. This office doesn't receive money, I don't receive money, no physicians receive money for putting COVID-19 on a death certificate," explained Dr. Kelly.
Dr. Kelly said the staff has even noted some aggression from family members when they go out to scenes, and test a decedent for the virus. "Saying they don't want that collected, that this is fake news, this is a government lie. The reason why we collect and test for COVID-19 on people that died is one, my statutory responsibility by Colorado's State Constitution is to figure out why people die. Secondly, because that information could be used to save the family that's there, to inform our first responders, our patrol officers who are there, or my staff," said Dr. Kelly.
Coronavirus can still be contracted from a person after they are deceased.
The process of filling out a death certificate has not changed since COVID-19, according to Dr. Kelly. He said underlying conditions are not ignored in a death certificate ultimately marked with COVID-19 as the main cause of death. "There's a place for the primary cause of death, which in the vast majority of the time is going to be COVID, and COVID complications. But also, a part for all those contributing factors, like obesity, like hypertension, like heart problems. That's important to put on there because it gives us an idea of who is the most at risk... Because someone has these other problems, they have hypertension, they have obesity, doesn't make their life less valuable. It doesn't mean that that's not why COVID caused or contributed to their death," said Dr. Kelly.
In addition, Dr. Kelly explained he and everyone in his office has taken an oath to uphold the laws of the State of Colorado. "When I fill out a death certificate, it's a legal document. Only doctors and coroners, and I'm both of those things, could fill one out. And you're swearing that that's the cause of death, and the contributors of death. To change or alter, or for me to fraudulently fill out a death certificate at your request just because you don't like the answer that's on there, one is obviously deeply unprofessional, and second, really a crime," said Dr. Kelly.
He said his office is trained to handle grief and stressful situations, but this added skepticism surrounding their work is a lot to take. "This is a very, very hard job. And then, to do it with that level of aggression that's directed at them, and then to have people call the office, claiming that we're lying or we're making this up, it does feel as if, really, a great betrayal... The job of this office isn't to make people feel good. It isn't to tell you what you want to hear. It's to put the truth on that death certificate. The truth is the only way we're going to get to preventing similar deaths in the future," said Dr. Kelly.
Dr. Kelly said the conspiracy theories regarding the COVID-19 pandemic have real consequences. "To know that those accusations are not coming from reality in any way, shape or form, they're really untethered from the world that we're living in. But it continues to persist, and it really continues to grow. And as we saw in the nation's Capitol this last week, those lies, that misinformation has real world ramifications. People have died, because our elected leaders and some citizens haven't taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously, and now people are dying for other lies and other misinformation that's out there," said Dr. Kelly.
Dr. Kelly said 2020 was a record setting year for his office, unfortunately. "The sacrifices that we've all made, and the time we spent away from our families, and the risk we've put ourselves and our co-workers and our families at, to have that turned around and say, 'despite you really being the heroes of this story, we're going to make you the villains.' Because we don't like what you have to say. That may be the most difficult thing I think most of us in health care have experienced," said Dr. Kelly.
"When you accuse of us being the bad guys in this, it certainly is disheartening, it's demoralizing, and it's exhausting. We've been doing this job now for ten to eleven months, around the clock, trying to help get us all through this collectively. Just please treat us as human beings. Whatever stress you're dealing with with COVID, and the frustrations you have, we also have those in our own lives, but we're still in the front lines trying to get us through this."
News5 also reached out to Penrose-St. Francis hospital, which said individual physicians and nurses do not receive any increased compensation for a COVID-19 case. Medicare does pay more for COVID-19 patients, but hospitals as a whole do not make any profit or revenue from providing COVID-19 care. Centura's coding practices are not designed to increase the cost of care for patients, and instead doctors submit the necessary documentation for the care they provide to be coded or billed.