Coroner’s investigations in county increasing, though not due to COVID deaths

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GREENFIELD — The Hancock County coroner investigated more deaths in the first eight months of the year than it did in all of 2019, and an analysis of cases shows many of those were older residents who died at home.

Through Aug. 31, the office of Coroner David Stillinger had investigated 107 deaths of Hancock County residents. That’s an increase in pace over last year, when it investigated 107 deaths in total.

In 2019, the coroner’s office found that 77 of the deaths it investigated were attributable to natural causes. Through the first eight months of 2020, 82 deaths have been of natural causes.

The office is hesitant to draw conclusions from the data, pointing out that 2019 was something of an outlier, with fewer cases than normal. But a higher proportion of deaths it has investigated this year — nearly 83% in cases in which a cause of death has been determined — have been attributed to natural causes, compared to about 73% in 2019.

Because the coroner investigates deaths that are unattended, that trend is worrisome to community leaders who have witnessed firsthand the effects of isolation and distancing in the age of COVID-19.

Of the other death investigations in 2019, five were suicides, while 23 were accidental deaths — a category that can include drug overdoses, car accidents and others. Two had undetermined causes.

Of this year’s cases through August, six were suicides and 11 were accidents, in addition to the 82 natural deaths. Results are pending for the rest.

Interestingly, only three cases attributed to natural causes — a broad category that includes all internal factors, like medical conditions or disease — were determined to involve COVID-19.

Hancock County has seen a total of 43 coronavirus deaths, but the vast majority of them did not require a coroner’s investigation. Stillinger said his office doesn’t conduct COVID tests unless investigators have reason to believe the victim had symptoms, such as if their family members report they suffered from a cough.

Most people who died of natural causes were elderly. The average was 69.8 years old; the youngest was 49.

Stillinger said he would not want to speculate on the cause of increased natural deaths this year and whether it might be related to the self-isolation many vulnerable people are undertaking due to COVID-19. However, nonprofits that serve seniors have said seniors are staying home more and are experiencing some negative impacts of isolation.

Bob Long, executive director of Hancock County Senior Services, said loneliness among seniors is a concern he often hears about.

“The elderly tend to be more isolated anyway because they’re less mobile,” Long said.

Lynda Kosh, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Hancock County, agreed.

“For our clients, that is a concern even without COVID-19,” she said.

Kosh said the organization has been receiving referrals from doctors’ offices about patients who have COVID-19 co-morbidities and whose family members are not locally available to help out. The number of clients has increased from around 65 to 70 per month to approximately 110, she said.

“There’s a lot of research on isolation, especially among senior citizens,” Kosh said.

A study this year by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found that social isolation is a significant health concern among adults over 50. Loneliness increased the risk of heart disease, dementia, and stroke, among other problems.

“Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity,” a CDC report on the study said.

In addition to meals, Meals on Wheels has been producing “care boxes” that provide seniors who aren’t going out to shop with other shelf-stable items. Volunteers have also recruited community members to provide seniors with notes and colored pages from local children aimed at helping them feel less alone.

The coroner’s office, meanwhile, is responding to the increase in investigations. Nick Jaussaud, chief deputy coroner, pointed out that 2019 was considered a “super light” year in terms of death investigations. Jaussaud said the department averages 110 to 150 death inquiries in a typical year, and this year will likely fall toward the upper end of the scale.

Because budgets are generally based on the amount spent in the previous year, Stillinger appeared at a recent county council meeting to request additional money for his department. He was approved to spend an additional $9,000 on pay for coroner’s deputies.

Stillinger said it’s likely the number of cases his office deals with will rise over time with the county’s population.

“The council’s always been wonderful to deal with, and they understand that when I come asking for money, it’s not going to be for something extravagant,” he said.

Stillinger said he believes that in general, his deputies deserve more compensation for the work they do. Deputies are paid a standard $130 per case, but Stillinger pointed out they are trained professionals who frequently spend upwards of 10 hours on a single death. The work, he said, can be emotionally taxing.

For more complex cases — like a suicide, a motor vehicle accident, or any death where homicide needs to be ruled out as a possibility — deputies might spend hours on a scene before an autopsy is conducted and they speak to a bereaved family.

“I really think we need to find a better way to be fair to these deputies,” Stillinger said.