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When death from coronavirus is a matter of interpretation

If a person has a serious illness or injury then becomes infected with the virus, both conditions can be listed as a cause of death.

Asked why Italy had a high rate of deaths due to the coronavirus, government officials there said it was because they were using a broader definition for such deaths than other countries, counting any victims who had tested positive even if other illnesses were at fault.

In Illinois, officials announced last weekend that an infant died after testing positive for the virus, but said they were still determining the cause of death. And in Florida, two deaths were listed as virus-related in mid-March, then later removed from the official count.

Incomplete data and inconsistencies come as no surprise to medical examiners, coroners, and physicians who fill out death certificates for a living. Even under normal circumstances, determining the cause of death is an inexact science. With the surge in deaths from a cause no one had heard of three months ago, ironclad certainty may, for now, be even more elusive.


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