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Study: Autopsies Can Help Determine If Patient Died From Or With COVID-19

Cleveland Clinic doctors were involved in the first study published in the U.S. that examined complete autopsies of individuals with COVID-19. [Cleveland Clinic]
Cleveland Clinic Miller Family Pavilion in Cleveland, Ohio

Thousands of COVID-19 cases may go undetected due to lack of testing. But on the other hand, a local researcher said some deaths could be mistakenly attributed to COVID-19 when an underlying condition was the main cause.

A recent study involving two Cleveland Clinic doctors finds autopsies can help determine whether people with the coronavirus die from COVID-19 or an underlying condition. That difference can complicate how COVID-19 deaths are counted.

The Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s office studied complete autopsies of two patients who both tested positive for the virus after they died. They determined one patient died from COVID-19 complications, while the other from an underlying liver condition.

Cleveland Clinic Director of Pulmonary Pathology Sanjay Mukhopadhyay provided input on the findings.

“That’s going to complicate the issue of, to what extent COVID is killing people,” he said. “This is probably likely to be a relatively small percentage of people. Most people who have COVID and die are probably dying from COVID, but there will be a small percentage like this, which will muddy the numbers a little bit.”

Mukhopadhyay said the study shows autopsies can often determine whether a COVID-19 patient died from the virus or another cause.

“Two cases certainly doesn't give any idea of the magnitude of the problem,” he said. “But it does provide proof, I mean, this is very solid proof that this can happen.”

Mukhopadhyay said because of the lack of testing, as well as the danger of performing autopsies on people who presumptively died from COVID-19, errors could be made all around.

“It’s much more likely that they’re missing people who are dying of COVID just because they didn’t get a test, rather than the other way around," he said.

Mukhopadhyay said scientists are now conducting additional tests on the bodies for more information.

The clinic’s Dr. Subha Ghosh also contributed to the findings.

The study was published in the April 10 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Pathology. It's the first published study that looked at a complete autopsy of decedents who had COVID-19 in the U.S.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.