Dougherty County coroner seeking to cover gap in coronavirus testing

Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler is seeking coronavirus tests from those who died before being admitted to the hospital.

ALBANY — Concerned that some novel COVID-19 deaths have gone uncounted, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler will meet on Thursday with health officials to address the possible gap.

Prior to about four weeks ago, patients who died in the emergency room or while being transported to the hospital were tested for the novel coronavirus at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, the coroner said.

“It’s a great possibility” that some deaths attributable to COVID-19 have occurred during that time, Fowler said during a Wednesday telephone interview. “I can’t prove it now.

“They used to test them. They’re not testing them now.”

After a period in which there had been relatively few deaths of Dougherty County residents who tested positive for the virus, there have been three since Friday. The three recent deaths bring the death total for county residents to 170.

“It’s gone up a little bit,” Fowler said. “It’s nothing like March and April.”

Fowler initially brought up the testing issue during a Friday news conference during which he reported 167 deaths since the coronavirus struck in March in Dougherty County

The coroner said a meeting has been set to discuss how to ensure testing is performed on those who die of a condition such as cardiac arrest in the emergency room or in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

The Georgia Department of Public Health will be involved in that discussion and likely will be the agency that steps in to make sure testing is performed, he said.

“We’re supposed to meet in the morning,” Fowler said.

Dougherty County residents who died at a residence or other location outside the hospital are tested for the coronavirus. Phoebe tests any patient who is admitted, the hospital said in an email response to The Herald.

However, when a patient dies en route or before being admitted for treatment, tests are not performed.

“We follow proper medical protocols regarding testing and treatment of all patients,” the release from Dr. James Black, Phoebe’s director for emergency services, said. “We do not order unnecessary tests or generate additional costs for a patient when it will not change the clinical course.

“While it is not ethically or professionally appropriate for a hospital to perform such tests on a decedent, the coroner has the right and ability to perform COVID-19 tests on deceased individuals.”

Black said that a positive test for the coronavirus at the time of death does not necessarily indicate COVID-19 was the cause of death.

“We are in contact with Mr. Fowler and are committed to working with him on a process that serves families, provides him with the data he requests and protects our responsibility to patients,” Black said in the email response.

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