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The bizarre story of a Tennessee woman who caught COVID-19 four months after being cremated

Published Sep 7th, 2020 2:09PM EDT
Coronavirus Testing
Image: vladimirhodac/Adobe

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  • A 66-year-old woman who died in mid-February just received a coronavirus isolation notification — it arrived six months after her death.
  • Equally ridiculous is the fact that the quarantine notice was delivered more than 60 days after she supposedly tested positive for COVID-19 on June 20th.
  • No one knows what caused the mistake and it’s unclear if similar errors have been made in the past.

A 57-year-old woman from California who was mildly obese and had no other medical conditions died on February 6th after her heart “burst.” Her family learned months later that she was actually an early victim of the novel coronavirus, as the results of an autopsy and post-mortem testing came back positive. The woman was one of two early COVID-19 deaths in February that showed the virus was spreading in America and killing patients weeks before the first documented coronavirus fatalities, at a time when testing wasn’t widely available.

Now, a similar story comes from Tennessee, but this one has a bizarre twist. The family of a 66-year-old woman who died in February received a notice that she tested positive for COVID-19. But this time around, it turns out that the woman didn’t die of coronavirus at all — unless she somehow found a way to take a coronavirus test more than four months after she died and was cremated.

“I’m just having a hard time understanding how they can say someone has COVID-19 when they are not even alive,” Sandra Whittington’s son Troy told Local Memphis about her mother. “It’s been six months, almost seven since she passed away. There was no testing that was done at that time,” he said. “On her death certificate it was stated she died, what the cause of death was, and it was not COVID-19. It was COPD.”

The woman fought chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for a long time and died in hospice at the home of a friend. At the time, the US had only a few confirmed COVID-19 cases. The letter from the Shelby County Health Department said that Sandra had been diagnosed as COVID positive, and she needed to isolate. When her son called the health department, he was told that Sandra took a test on June 20th, which was obviously impossible. The woman died in February and was then cremated.

Sadly for the family, this wasn’t the only disturbing error in this COVID-19 diagnosis. Had she been alive and taken the test, the notice came two months after the fact since the test was reportedly taken all the way back in June. “We’re talking two months later. She needs to be quarantined for 10, well we’ve got 60 days from the time of the test to get the letter out to her, which is unacceptable,” her son said.

Testing issues prevented many Americans from getting tested in the early months of the pandemic. As the supply increased, authorities had to deal with a different problem a few months later, when some people had to wait several days to get their diagnosis. Shortages of test kits and delayed results obviously hinder efforts to contain outbreaks.

Unlike the woman in California whose COVID-19 test came back after an autopsy, this is clearly a mistake from the local health department. It’s unclear what caused this series of unfortunate events, but the Shelby County Health Department is aware of the issue. “Dr. Haushalter is reaching out to Mr. Whittington to apologize on behalf of the Health Department about the mistake and the additional pain it might have caused the family,” a statement to Local Memphis reads. “She also states that new protocols will be put in place to make sure a mistake like this doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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