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Utah sees decrease in COVID-19 death backlog, increase in overall non-virus deaths this year

Posted at 9:00 PM, Mar 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-08 23:39:00-05

The Utah Department of Health’s chief medical examiner says there has been an increase in deaths this past year, but it’s not all due to COVID-19.

According to state law, all deaths that result from public health importance fall under the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, which has investigated every death from COVID-19 in Utah.

“COVID is an illness that affects many organ systems. It’s most prominent and most known for the respiratory symptoms that it causes, and the vast majority of the deaths that we see are related to respiratory failure due to acute lung injury,” Dr. Erik Christensen, Utah’s chief medical examiner, said in an interview with FOX 13 on Monday.

While the office has investigated and determined COVID-19 as a contributing factor of death for 1,977 Utahns as of Monday, Dr. Christensen says only about 8 percent of those needed an autopsy. Most of the deaths were reported from hospitals, health departments, funeral homes and required the Medical Examiner’s Office to investigate with records and additional paperwork.

At one point during the pandemic, the Medical Examiner’s Office was backlogged by roughly 250 cases but has since brought that number down to roughly 160.

“The biggest challenge we had was during this most recent surge, you know, December, January and February, where the numbers were just so huge, that all we do to just keep up with the incoming stuff and document it,” said Dr. Christensen, who said the death backlog has decreased in line with the overall COVID-19 numbers decreasing statewide. “It’s something we’re in the habit of doing, just not to this volume.”

Christensen said that his staff has also completed autopsies on other COVID-19 related deaths involving out-of-state residents who were in Utah receiving care, but they were not included in the Utah Department of Health data.

“It’s been busy, and certainly not all due to COVID," Christensen said. "We’ve seen a large increase in the number of deaths that come through here, some directly attributable to COVID, but the majority, not."

He noted an overall general increase of deaths in the past year with his department conducting an additional 16 percent of examinations. Other than population increasing in Utah, he doesn’t know exactly why there had been an increase in non-coronavirus deaths.

Regardless of the death, Dr. Christensen and his staff have no easy tasks.

“There is a story and a family attached to every single one of these numbers that gets reported,” he said. “The stories in many cases are strikingly similar, sadly so.”

Dr. Christensen estimates the backlog will continue to dwindle down as they’re able to track down more records and reports. He admits that it’s typically a delay in records requests, which leads to a delayed report of a death.

“Going through 20-30 reports a day of similar kinds of things, it’s really been heartbreaking, frankly,” he said.