SC woman’s death certificate lists COVID-19, but family says she never had it

Published: Aug. 13, 2020 at 6:30 PM CDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A Lexington County woman is searching for answers as to why her grandmother’s death certificate lists COVID-19 complications as a cause of death, when she says her grandmother was never tested for the virus and never showed any symptoms.

Now, the family has turned to WIS to investigate why a hospice doctor signed off on this, and whether or not their loved one’s death was counted in the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s daily death totals.

Kimberly Klosterman says her 79-year-old grandmother, Joan Hill, had suffered from dementia for several years.

She moved in with Klosterman’s mom in Richland County in January and was receiving in-home hospice care from Amedisys in West Columbia until she passed away in her daughter’s home on July 31.

The next week, Klosterman and her family were shocked and upset when they received Hill’s death certificate, which lists Alzheimer’s disease and COVID-19 complications as her cause of death.

Joan Hill's family says she did suffer from Alzheimer's, but did not have COVID-19.
Joan Hill's family says she did suffer from Alzheimer's, but did not have COVID-19.(Kimberly Klosterman via WIS)

“That was wrong. She had never been tested before or after death, so I wasn’t sure how that could even be listed on her death certificate,” explained Klosterman, who says her whole family was tested for the virus a few weeks prior and all received negative results.

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts was called on July 31 to respond to Mrs. Hill’s death, which is required if someone dies outside of a hospital.

“When you (WIS) contacted me was the first time we were made aware that there was anything listed as far as COVID,” Watts said. “When we took the call originally, it was a patient with Alzheimer’s -- nothing was mentioned about COVID-19 at that time.”

He also explained the coroner is not required to sign off on a death certificate of someone in hospice care, and that was done by an Amedisys doctor.

“It’s certainly something that needs to be answered as to why that happened, and who made that decision, and why that decision was made if there was no indication at the time of death,” Watts said. “I think the family deserves an answer. I think all of us deserve an answer.”

Klosterman says her grandmother did not have an autopsy, and her body was transported from her mother's home directly to the funeral home.

“She was breathing fine; that was the last thing to go for her,” Klosterman said. “Her lung function was good up until the very end, so there were zero symptoms of COVID whatsoever.”

WIS reached out to DHEC to find out if Mrs. Hill’s death was listed in their daily totals, and a spokesperson sent a statement saying they can’t answer that because they cannot comment on specific deaths or cases due to privacy restrictions. (Read the agency’s full statement at the bottom of this story.)

The agency also explained a confirmed COVID-19 death requires a viral test, whereas a probable death is someone whose death certificate lists COVID-19 as a significant cause of death, but that person did not undergo an actual test.

Based on that information, Mrs. Hill’s death could have been included in the probable death count -- but WIS does not know that for certain at this time.

When Klosterman also reached out to DHEC to ask if her grandmother’s death was counted in the totals, the agency refused to answer, saying Amedisys would have to answer.

WIS asked Amedisys why a doctor signed off on a death certificate that listed COVID-19 complications without giving that patient a viral test. They gave a statement saying they acted in accordance with the coroner’s office and followed clinical protocols. (Read their full statement at the end of this story.)

But Klosterman and her family still want answers, and most of all, they want to make sure Joan Hill isn’t listed as a South Carolina COVID-19 death.

“I am very aware that COVID is real,” Klosterman said. “I’ve known people that have had it, that have been hospitalized for it, that have passed away from it -- but to have a report come back and say that that’s what my grandmother passed away from when she was never even tested, had no symptoms, it’s just devastating.”

WIS takes every allegation seriously regarding issues with the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths being reported, and look into them all. This is the first time WIS has been made aware of a discrepancy in the numbers where there has been proof to back up the allegation.

DHEC’s full statement:

"Please know that DHEC can't comment in detail on individual deaths or cases due to privacy restrictions. While DHEC is the official state record-keeper of vital statistics information, DHEC doesn't have a role in determining a cause of death; that's determined by a medical certifier (which can be a physician, advanced practice registered nurse or coroner) who, for COVID-19, uses the latest CDC guidance.

“We’re unable to confirm at this time that a DHEC employee recommended anything other than referring to the current CDC guidance.

“DHEC performs cross analyses of the initial information about a death that is directly reported to the agency by medical certifiers to the information later submitted to the agency on the individual’s official death certificate to ensure it matches, and we reach out to the medical certifier in there is an discrepancy. DHEC works to protect overall public health and monitors statewide disease surveillance, but the agency doesn’t have oversight of individual patient care and couldn’t provide medical advice for any individual.”

Amedisys’ full statement:

“Amedisys takes great pride in our commitment to patients and the hospice care we provide. Please understand that due to federal laws that protect the privacy of patient information, we cannot provide you with the details regarding this situation, other than we acted in accordance with the Coroner’s Office and followed clinical protocols. Our top priority now – and always – is taking care of our patients and their families to ensure they receive the highest quality hospice care.”

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