Working as a Pathologist during Covid-19

“When dealing with a deceased with known Covid-19, the protocol states that we cannot, after autopsy, hand over the body to an undertaker who is unable to manage that individual with Covid-19.”

DURBAN – Frontline healthcare workers across the world are working around the clock to help save lives during the Covid-19 crisis, while those in the field of forensic pathology focus on the deceased. 

In a pandemic like Covid-19, large numbers of the deceased can swiftly exceed local capacities if not managed effectively and in a timeous manner, as a result forensic pathologists have had to adapt to various changes in a short period of time. 

Dr Mandy Date-Chong, a forensic pathologist in the Western Cape, says they have been faced with extraordinary challenges.

“During autopsies, we are accustomed to wearing full PPE, however there are extra precautions that are taken during this time. Certain procedures are considered aerosol generating and pose a risk to us. When dealing with a deceased with known Covid-19, the protocol states that we cannot, after autopsy, hand over the body to an undertaker who is unable to manage that individual with Covid-19. The body is then placed within the body bags, directly into the coffin,” said Dr Date-Chong.

When the Forensic Pathology Services (FSP) is contacted from a death scene regarding a case of sudden death in the community, Forensic Pathologists are required to answer questions on their Covid-19 checklist.  Should any of those questions indicate a possibility of Covid-19 then precautions need to be taken during the retrieval of the body from the scene, during the identification of the deceased by a family member at the mortuary and during the autopsy, and when the body is handed over to the undertaker at the end of the autopsy process. 

“Now with the easing of restrictions, homicides have soared. What is happening at the hospitals with staff members is also happening to us at FPS.  There is no ‘new normal’ because every day there are new regulations. One may become used to doing something a certain way and the rules may change. The past few months have been surreal and stressful but I am grateful to have the support of my family and friends,” she said.  

If the deceased is known to have Covid-19 and the death is attributed to Covid-19, then the death is classified as natural and does not require a forensic post-mortem examination.  

 

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