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DHS’ death directive

By M.D. Kittle 

Wisconsin Spotlight | Dec. 8, 2020

MADISON — In the Evers administration’s most morbid COVID health order to date, the state Department of Health Services has issued a directive on the “safe disposal of human remains.”

Coroners and medical examiners may now issue a permit to cremate a corpse without viewing the body — if the death certificate lists COVID-19 as the underlying cause of death, according to the new directive. 

State law requires coroners and medical examiners to include in any cremation permit a statement that they have viewed the corpse and “made personal inquiry into the cause and manner of death” and “is of the opinion that no further examination or judicial inquiry is necessary.”

DHS says it is removing the usual requirements because “Wisconsin is in the midst of a deadly, uncontrolled spike in cases of COVID-19, resulting in a high volume of deaths.”

DHS, drawing from Evers’ Executive Order #95, also allows medical examiners and coroners to issue cremation permits without having viewed the corpse if they are “notified that a decedent was COVID-19 positive at the time of death” and the cause of death is confirmed by the treating health care provider or public health department.

A cremation permit may also be issued within 48 hours after the time of death, if the death certificate states COVID-19 as the underlying cause of death.

For some, the directive may feel like a grim rush to disposal. There also are growing concerns about COVID-19 being improperly listed as the cause of death in some cases.

DHS says it is trying to strike a balance in a time of crisis.

“An order is necessary to ensure that COVID-19 victims and their families are treated with dignity and respect, mortuary services staff are protected from unnecessary infection, and personal protective equipment is conserved,” the directive states.

The directive was issued by DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm on Thursday. It is to remain in effect until Jan. 19.

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