‘A death that wasn’t theirs’: Local woman says Juneau COVID-19 death incorrectly counted

Deceased was listed as Juneau resident, her niece says she never lived here.

A Juneau woman is trying to amend her aunt’s death certificate, which she says led to her aunt inaccurately being counted as one of the capital city’s first COVID-19 deaths.

Colleen Torrence reached out to news outlets, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and City and Borough of Juneau after seeing stories reporting the death of a Juneau resident in New Jersey due to the coronavirus. That death, Torrence said, was likely her aunt, Marcella Livemond, who recently passed away at a long-term care facility in Freehold, New Jersey. Because Torrence had power of attorney for Livemond, Torrence had been receiving mail and conducting business for her aunt from her home in Juneau, which is why she believes the death was recorded for Alaska.

“Due to erroneous residence information that was placed on her death certificate by the New York and New Jersey funeral directors entering the data, the information gathered through these official means is not accurate,” Torrence said in an email to the Empire.

Due to privacy laws, state officials couldn’t confirm the identity of the deceased for either Torrence or the Empire, but Torrence said they intimated to her in the call she was likely correct and provided direction on how to resolve the issue.

In an email to the Empire, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson Clinton Bennett said officials had spoken with Torrence and confirmed she will need to request a change to the death certificate from the state of New Jersey.

“If there are any changes to the death certificate we would expect the state of New Jersey to contact Alaska if/when these changes occur,” Bennett said.

Reporting guidelines for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention count COVID-19 deaths by the deceased’s state of residence, not where the death occurred. For example, Alaska’s first reported COVID-19 death was an Alaska resident living in Washington state, but Torrence said, her aunt never lived in Alaska.

[State reports 2 new coronavirus deaths]

Livemond was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York where she lived until just a few years ago when she moved to New Jersey, according to Torrence. Health conditions caused Livemond to move into a long-term care facility in Freehold, New Jersey where she died in May at age 69.

A person in their 60s was one of the deaths reported Friday, according to a news release from City and Borough of Juneau that cited the state. Both of the COVID-19 deaths reported for Juneau occurred in May, Bennett previously said.

Torrence said there must have been confusion when the death certificate was being filled out. Torrence has power of attorney for her aunt, but is not her next-of-kin, and the difference between mailing address and residence got confused.

“It was an inadvertent error,” Torrence said. “I wasn’t familiar with the (death certificate) form. Something got miscommunicated.”

When data is reported to Alaska by the CDC, patient names are not usually known until later according to Clint Farr, chief of Health Analytics and Vital Records at DHSS. Farr was the state official who directed Torrence toward changing the death certificate. While he couldn’t confirm any names or personal information “you can certainly draw the points together,” he said.

“CDC reporting requirements lists places of residences,” Farr said. “If a resident were to die out of Alaska, that death eventually comes to us. We eventually get the record from the (state where the death occurred), but it’s not an immediate thing. No response to a pandemic is perfect, it’s a work in progress.”

In addition to wanting to fix the potential error, Torrence said she wanted Juneau residents to know about the situation.

“It seemed pretty important to try and set the record state, for my aunt, but I also didn’t want Alaska owning a death that wasn’t theirs,” she said.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.