The grim task of processing death certificates during the coronavirus pandemic

“It is high anxiety, it is stressful."

April 28, 2020, 3:36 PM

Krista Martino is on a team of six at the Meriden City Hall in Connecticut. As part of social distancing measures during the coronavirus pandemic, they're divided equally into two shifts, each working two-and-a-half days a week.

Martino doesn't know if they could handle working any more than that right now. As an assistant city clerk, the Connecticut resident signs marriage licenses, birth certificates and, with increasing frequency, death certificates.

"The anxiety's really tough on us," Martino told ABC News. "If we did more than two-and-a-half days a week, it would probably be really overwhelming."

"It is high anxiety, it is stressful," she said.

Meriden, in New Haven County, is a hospital town. The 156-bed MidState Medical Center serves the county, but COVID-19 patients from all over Connecticut are being treated there, Martino said. If a MidState patient passes away, the Meriden City Hall processes the death certificate.

Typically, the city hall would see up to a dozen death certificates a week; now it is seeing two to three times that number, with at least half of that confirmed or probable COVID-19 deaths, Martino said.

According to the latest figures from the state, New Haven County has had 456 COVID-19-associated deaths. Overall for the state, there have been 2,012 such deaths.

Medical workers dons personal protective equipment before entering the room of a patient with COVID-19 in a Stamford Hospital intensive care unit, on April 24, 2020, in Stamford, Conn.
John Moore/Getty Images, FILE

For Martino, those aren't just numbers.

"A lot of these names, you recognize them. They're people you talked to on the phone," she said. "I do a lot of the nursing home absentee ballots. So these are names that you know, these are people that you helped, that maybe called in or came in, got a fishing license. They're not just strangers, and they're not just numbers."

Each time the office receives a death certificate from a funeral home or in the mail for a COVID-19-related death, it's "very sobering," she said.

The office follows new protocols due to the crisis. Recently, it's been mandated that everyone in City Hall must wear a mask. When handling death certificates noted as confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases, they wear gloves.

"We have to handle those with caution," Martino said. "We disinfect everything the death certificate's touched because nobody can really tell us how long this stays on things."

Even if it wasn't connected to COVID-19, they handle every death certificate with gloves, Martino said, to "be on the safe side."

"We just have to use all our caution, because we have two jobs now -- one is to keep being here for the public, and the other one is to stay healthy ourselves so that we can continue to be here for the public," she said.

It takes longer to process a death certificate now, Martino said. What could usually be done in five minutes now takes 15 to 20, between extra precautions and steps, including having the record available for the state right away and accessible remotely.

Sometimes, Martino gets calls from family members trying to get a copy of a death certificate. One recent caller had lost both of his parents to COVID-19 within a week, she said.

"You just want to do as much as you can for them, but you feel very helpless because all you can do is give them their loved one's death certificate," Martino said.

One thing that has slowed down in recent weeks: marriage licenses. In the spring, the office would normally see dozens each month. Now it's about one a week for intimate ceremonies in parks or backyards, Martino said.

"They come in and they're like, Are we your first COVID marriage?," Martino said. "That's what they call them."

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To decompress after her shift, Martino likes to sleep in, watch something on Amazon Prime and play with her kittens, Luna and Juno, she adopted in February.

The work can be isolating, she said. But she is grateful for her colleagues. "They're like a second family to me," Martino said. "We can kind of manage sometimes to laugh and to remind each other that, hey, we're all here for each other."

Seeing the record of the coronavirus pandemic play out in Meriden, Martino hopes people continue to take social distancing measures seriously.

"It's on paper in front of me," she said. "People need to think of it like, this could have been my loved one. Why am I not doing my part in wearing a mask or being careful? I don't want somebody I love to have their name on a piece of paper that somebody else is going to sign. That's the reality."

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