OMI working to clear body backlog, deaths potentially COVID-19 related

Coronavirus New Mexico

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Around the beginning of May, state leaders repeatedly faced questions about whether New Mexico was on the cusp of another spike in COVID-19 related deaths. They denied it. Now, KRQE News 13 learned the real reason behind what only appeared to be a rising number of deaths.

“We’re, believe it or not, catching up from an unprecedented number of deaths that were referred to them in October, November, December, and January,” said Secretary for the Human Services Department Dr. David Scrase.

The winter of 2020 held some of the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, for New Mexico. Then, the coronavirus was consistently killing around 40 New Mexicans a day. The highest number of daily deaths was 48, which was tallied right before the holidays.

“Every person who dies from this horrible virus leaves an empty seat around the dinner table and a hole in the hearts of everyone in their family,” said Scrase.

The number of daily deaths finally started to drop, as the vaccine coursed through New Mexico.

However, concern rose again around the beginning of May, when double-digit death counts started appearing again. However, this time the numbers were not telling an accurate story.

“When I look at the daily numbers, I can see that, for example, when we have 12 deaths that actually eight of them are late reports,” said Scrase.

Scrase says delayed death reports are being counted as the Office of the Medical Investigator works to clear a body backlog.

“The OMI, the Office of the Medical Investigator, is now finally getting through their backlog. {They’re} managing cases and making determinations about the cause of death,” said Scrase.

Scrase says backed-up death certificate paperwork is playing a role in the delay as well, but adds, during the pandemic closer examination was needed on a wider variety of deaths. “Prior to the pandemic, if an older person died at home and had serious heart disease, maybe had some shortness of breath a day or two before, they potentially would’ve just filled out the death certificate. But, now, there’s more,” said Scrase.

Scrase says doctors have to consider a death could be COVID-19 related, when they may not have had to before. So, to be accurate, doctors will ask OMI to investigate.

Scrase says there are at least 115 cases caught up in the backlog, but says OMI is almost entirely caught up now. “They’re down to six cases that might be COVID that they’re still trying to confirm,” said Scrase.

To clear up any confusion, the state is now changing the way they report COVID-19 deaths to the public. COVID-19 case and death press releases now clarify if the deaths are recent, or not. “I can see where that’s confusing, but just reassuring, the numbers are looking good right now,” said Scrase.

Scrase says New Mexico is now averaging just one or two deaths a day, which is a far cry from where we were just a few months ago. “Especially compared when we were at almost 50 deaths a day this is a great, great measure of overall control of the pandemic in our state,” said Scrase.

Scrase says next week, they will release a full report on the OMI backlog. KRQE News 13 repeatedly asked OMI to do an interview related to this story; OMI refused.

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