Autopsies of both COVID-positive and negative people could give evidence for disease detectives


(WAVY) — First considered a respiratory disease, we now know COVID-19 affects the human body from head to toe with deadly consequences. Doctors report kidney disease, unusual blood clotting, damage to the heart, a deadly inflammatory disease that affects children, and toes that mysteriously develop lesions.

A Virginia doctor who is an expert on death says some mysteries of the novel coronavirus may be solved, not with a stethoscope, but the microscope.​

Dr. Leah Bush, the former chief medical examiner for the State of Virginia, has determined the manner of death for many crime victims. She has also solved medical mysteries. A decade ago, her office determined the causes of death for several Hampton Roads children and one adult who contracted a deadly pathogen.

“These children’s autopsies were done at the medical examiner’s office because we needed to get to the bottom of it. We were able to determine that most of them were a case of virulent strep that was in the community,” said Bush.

Because of the findings, doctors were able to provide early intervention to children with symptoms — thus saving lives.

Bush says during the pandemic there’s an opportunity to piece together disease evidence, by conducting autopsies on those killed by COVID-19.​

“Unless you do complete autopsies on some of the COVID patients and look at every tissue, you will never really know the scope and what the effect on the body really and truly is,” she said.

In the absence of full autopsies on COVID-19 victims, Bush says specimens collected from the nation’s crime victims — COVID-positive or COVID-negative — could be shared with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ​

“I’m sure that somebody who has been murdered in the past two or three months may have been exposed and had COVID that has not been diagnosed. I’m suspicious that even though they died of a gunshot wound they may have been infected with COVID because [during mandatory autopsies medical examiners would note] changes in the brain, liver, heart and kidneys,” she said.

Just as lives were saved through early intervention followig the virulent strep infection of a decade ago, Bush believes the nation can collect a body of evidence that can be used to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we have emerging infections such as what we have with the COVID, many times the medical examiner is the first agency that comes in contact with the decedent who has the infection. We will then gather specimens and in the past, we have cooperated with CDC in providing them with specimens,” she said.

Bush says scientists may never know just how many people — dead or alive — have contracted the potentially deadly disease.

“We [medical examiners] play a pretty big role in determining the next emerging infection,” she said.

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