Medical Examiner’s Office Procedures for Possible Infectious Disease Cases Including COVID-19

All deaths that are reported to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office (SCMEO) are screened for the possibility of an infectious cause.  The following are some of the criteria being used to identify possible COVID-19 related deaths:

  • Recent fever, sore throat, cough, or shortness of breath
  • Recent contact with individuals who have tested positive or are suspected to be positive for COVID-19, or with individuals under quarantine for COVID-19 exposure
  • Recent travel to locations outside of Washington with COVID-19 outbreaks

If a decedent meets any of the above criteria, the Snohomish County Health Department is notified and a SCMEO medical investigator responds to the scene and transports the decedent to the SCMEO for further examination/testing.  Upon arriving to the SCMEO, the decedents are placed in a special isolation refrigerator.  The decision to perform an autopsy or test for the COVID-19 virus, or other viruses such as influenza, is made on a case-by-case basis in consultation with public health authorities.

If an autopsy is performed, the pathologist and autopsy technicians performing the examination use the same standard personal protective equipment (PPE) that is used during routine autopsies.  The exams are conducted in an isolated, negative pressure, autopsy suite utilizing airborne precautions.  The suite is disinfected thoroughly following each exam.

The pathologist and autopsy technicians performing the exam follow Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines when collecting swab and tissue specimens in addition to those collected during routine autopsies.  Following the exam, the specimens collected are transported to the Washington State Department of Health Public Health Laboratory in Shoreline, WA for testing.

The results of the tests are distributed to the CDC, SCMEO, and Snohomish County Health Department.  The final cause of death, as determined by the SCMEO pathologist, is then released to the decedent’s next-of-kin.