Why COVID-19 is delaying the issuing of death certificates in Michigan

Sophia Lada
Capitol News Service

Lansing — As the second wave of COVID-19-related deaths declines, death certificates in Michigan are taking longer to obtain than they were before the pandemic.

Timeliness decreased between December 2019 and December 2020, dropping from 88% filed within 10 days to 85%, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

There are a multitude of reasons why filing a death certificate might be delayed, state health department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin, including COVID-19.

“It is likely the pandemic has caused some delays,” Sutfin said. 

Latasha Taylor shows the death certificate of her aunt in Georgia. There have been delays in Michigan of getting death certificates even as the second wave of COVID-19-related deaths has declined.

A common cause of delay is when a death occurs outside a medical facility and a physician has to be identified to sign the cause of death, she said. 

Another cause is when it’s necessary to have an autopsy or toxicology results.

Families and other survivors still need a death certificate to settle financial affairs, collect life insurance and pay funeral expenses, Sutfin said.

Michigan uses the Electronic Death Registry System to register deaths electronically.

Funeral directors, certifying physicians and local registers enter the necessary information into the system. Sutfin said most funeral directors use the system, but only about 10% of physicians do.

Electronic certificates are filed within days, but paper certificates can sometimes take a month or longer to process. 

Michigan requires physicians to complete their portion of the death certificate within 48 hours of death. 

During the spikes of COVID-19 cases, however, getting death certificates signed was a much slower process, said Tim Lynch, a third-generation funeral director for Lynch and Sons, located in Brighton, Clawson, Lapeer, Milford, Oxford and Walled Lake.

“The fact we had a greater number of deaths in 2020 put a stress on funeral directors," Sutfin said. "Also, all of the stresses that have been seen on the health care system and physicians have made it more difficult to get them to sign death certificates timely.” 

Lynch said that since the pandemic started, there haven’t been as many delays getting death certificates filed, but there have been delays in getting them to people. 

Before the electronic system, Lynch said he had to go to the doctor to get a signature.

And prior to the pandemic, Lynch said he went to the county or city clerk’s office to get certified copies and then gave them to the family.

Usually, it takes 24 to 48 hours to register a death certificate after a death, but now it can take 72 to 96 hours, Lynch said.

Now, most clerk offices, including Oakland County’s office, are handling everything only by mail or by appointment. 

Lynch said he used to pick up the death certificates in person, but now must order them by mail. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, it took a while for the filing and mail systems to figure out how to get death certificates where they needed to go.

It’s fairly common for the physical death certificate to take seven to 14 days to come in the mail, Lynch said.

However, some get held up for weeks or arrive out of order.

Lynch said if a certificate gets lost in the mail, it takes 30 days before the clerk will replace it for free. 

Now that a system has been established, clerks’ offices are offering to use priority mail for an extra cost of around $60, he said. 

Priority mail express costs at least $26 at the post office, according to the U.S. Postal Service.

Even with faster mail, it still takes longer than the pre-pandemic process of picking them up.

Some smaller clerks’ offices in the state still allow people to get them in person. 

Justine Barger, the supervisor for vital records in Oakland County, said death records are all electronic now and she “can’t even imagine why they would be delayed.”

The main problem in Oakland County is about mailing, she said.

Receiving death certificates by mail is taking anywhere from two to eight weeks.

Barger said death certificate statistics went up a little but nothing out of the ordinary, and there often are no records in the queue to process.

Sophia Lada is with the Capital News Service.