Citing concerns about grieving families uncertain about whether the coronavirus played a role in a loved one’s death, Supervisor Hilda Solis is set to ask her colleagues Tuesday to consider more testing for COVID-19 by the coroner’s office.

Solis’ motion suggests the possibility of a website or phone line where families could seek guidance on whether a recently deceased person could be tested.

“Family members may also be concerned about their own risk of infection if they have been in recent contact with their loved one before their passing,” the motion reads in part. “This has made the grieving process for families a lot more stressful and challenging.”

The motion seeks to direct the medical examiner-coroner to work with county attorneys and health department authorities to develop criteria for who could be tested and protocols for those tests. Solis envisions making tests available in cases even when the coroner would not otherwise be asked to take jurisdiction.

The number of deaths in the U.S. this year is in excess of historical trends even after considering deaths from the coronavirus, leading some experts to speculate that COVID-19 fatalities are being undercounted.

The first COVID-19 death to be confirmed was on Feb. 28 in Washington state. However, postmortem results later revealed that a 57-year-old San Jose woman, who had appeared to die of a massive heart attack, died of the virus on Feb. 6.

“Counting only confirmed or probable COVID-19-associated deaths … likely underestimates the number of deaths attributable to the pandemic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, in its own April report of excess deaths, the federal health agency warned that the increase could also be due to a spike in deaths related to suicides, drug overdoses or heart disease, for example.

A cause of death can sometimes be difficult to determine when someone dies at home or shortly after arriving at an emergency room. The proximate cause may be subject to interpretation when other factors, such as heart disease or pneumonia, play a role.

COVID-19 itself can present many different symptoms. While the most common seem to be respiratory problems, there are also reports of younger people dying of strokes and heart attacks without respiratory symptoms, who tested positive for the virus.

The CDC recommends that unless an autopsy is being done, a nasal swab — like those for living patients — be used to test for COVID-19. Fewer precautions are actually necessary for health care workers conducting the test, given that the virus typically spreads through coughing or sneezing. However, the CDC still advises that health care workers use gloves, gowns and masks for protection when conducting postmortem tests.

Autopsies of suspected COVID-19 cases can be more dangerous and should be performed in a negative pressure isolation room using higher-grade personal protective equipment to comply with the CDC guidelines.

Solis’ motion calls for a report back in two weeks.

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