SC coroners ask if they must release names of COVID-19 dead

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A car turns in at a location for drive-thru COVID-19 testing at Prisma Richland Hospital on Friday, April 3, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s coroners are asking the state’s top lawyer whether they have to release the names of people who die because of COVID-19 to the public.

York County Coroner Sabrina Gast sent a letter to Attorney General Alan Wilson asking for his office’s legal opinion on whether the typical information a coroner releases in an unusual death — names, ages and locations — need to be released in COVID-19 deaths.

“Most of the time, natural deaths are of no interest to media, however, you can imagine that in our current environment, the media is very interested. Our concern grows out of safety of the families left behind,” Gast wrote in her letter on behalf of the South Carolina Coroners Association.

Wilson’s office has not published an opinion yet, spokesman Robert Kittle said in an email Tuesday.

The letter was first reported by The Greenville News, which also contacted every county coroner where a coronavirus death has happened in South Carolina.

Under state law, hospitals do not have to report deaths to coroners of patients under a doctor’s care for more than 24 hours. Many coronavirus deaths happened in those circumstances, although some coroners said they are told of all hospital deaths.

Anderson County Corner Greg Shore released to the newspaper names, ages and as much background as he had on his county’s four deaths.

At least two Clarendon County residents have died from the virus. Coroner Bucky Mock said the hospital where the patients died refuses to release information, citing federal patient privacy laws. Without the information, Mock said he can’t study the local impact of COVID-19.

Some coroners told the newspaper they have had more deaths than the state Department of Health and Environmental Control is reporting.

Sumter County Coroner Robert Baker Jr. said he has recorded six coronavirus deaths, but DHEC is only reporting three.

Calhoun County Coroner Donnie Porth said the one virus death in his county was someone who died at home. He refused to give The Greenville News his report.

“I’m kind of hesitant to give out a name,” Porth said. “If people find out who it was, it could create panic.”

South Carolina reported more than 2,415 COVID-19 cases statewide as of Tuesday afternoon. State health officials also reported three additional deaths to bring the current number of fatal cases to 51.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness such as pneumonia, or even death.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, a number of new orders from Gov. Henry McMaster go into effect, including criminal penalties of 30 days in jail or a $100 fine for traveling anywhere other than to work, an essential business like a grocery store or pharmacy or to visit family. It also includes a order that the governor said could be considered a “stay-at-home” order. South Carolina was the last state east of the Mississippi River to not call its restrictions by that name.

McMaster ordered stores allowed to remain open, from home improvement centers to pharmacies to liquor stores to groceries to not allow inside more than five customers per 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) of retail space or 20% of the store’s occupancy limit, whichever is less. They also must take steps to keep customers at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart at all times.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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