‘What a Nightmare’

Belongings, Privacy Issues Pile Up With COVID-19 Deaths

By Tammy Joyner

An elderly man died of COVID-19 in a New York City hospital last week. His ICU nurse then folded his sweater, gathered his loafers and other belonging and placed them in a plastic bag.

What took place next prompted the nurse, whom Digital Privacy News is not naming, to take to social media:

I asked where to put (his) things. A coworker opens the door to a locked room; labeled bags are piled to the ceiling. My heart drops. It’s all belongings of deceased (patients), waiting for a family member to someday claim them …

The post illustrates a grim scenario taking place postmortem in hospitals nationwide.

As coronavirus death tolls rise, so do privacy risks, particularly identity theft and fraud as purses, wallets, wedding rings, driver’s license, credit and insurance cards, and other personal effects of victims pile up. 

“Anytime we have large numbers of people displaced, injured, killed or die, identity theft becomes an issue, so does financial fraud,” Rob Douglas, a nationally recognized identity-theft expert in Steamboat Springs, Colo., told Digital Privacy News.

“Financial criminals sweep in and take advantage of the chaos to gather any information they can and impersonate the victims and steal their assets.”

Forced to Go It Alone

Generally, when someone goes to the hospital, they’re accompanied by a friend or loved one. But COVID-19 has destroyed that practice.

As a result, virus patients, many of whom already are debilitated, cannot keep track of their belongings — and those conceivably could get lost, stolen or misplaced during their care and potential demise.

“Every one of those deceased is a potential victim of identity theft,” said Robert Siciliano, a security analyst for Protect Now in Boston. “What a nightmare.”

It’s a recipe for disaster within a disaster, identity theft and fraud experts tell Digital Privacy News, particularly amid the explosion in coronavirus-related telephone and email scams in recent weeks.

“Until a funeral home submits a death certificate to the federal government to be incorporated into the Social Security Death Master File, your information is still essentially alive,” Siciliano said.

Be Prepared

Most hospitals are not responsible for cash, valuables and other personal items brought in by patients. These effects also include eyeglasses, hearing aids, dentures, canes, prostheses and wheelchairs.

All can be easily misplaced in a chaotic hospital or emergency room, particularly as many are only limiting entrance to patients because of the virus.

Here are some ways to get ready for any hospital visit:

  • Make sure proper legal documents such as power of attorney for health care and real estate as well as your will are updated and in order.
  • Document your final wishes and have advance funeral plans in order. Ensure that family members know the location of all crucial documents.
  • Label possessions with name, address and emergency contact information should they get separated. Make sure they are easily identifiable should you become incapacitated or unable to communicate.
  • Tell family members, close friends, neighbors, even clergy or church members, of your condition and where you will be seeking treatment.
  • Leave jewelry and valuables at home. Only take what you need, such as your purse or wallet.

Tammy Joyner

New York Epicenter

The pandemic is likely to be most pronounced in cities like New York, where the COVID-19 death toll passed 10,000 on Monday. The city’s medical examiner’s office last week said it would hold unclaimed remains for only 14 days before burying them in the public cemetery.

“Tragically, you’re seeing numbers of death that are far higher than hospital personnel are used to dealing with,” Douglas told Digital Privacy News.

As America — the world, for that matter — struggles to contain the virus, many hospitals have yet to fully grasp or address how to disperse the personal effects of deceased virus victims.

“Between clinical work and an extremely high number of emails, there may be a substantial delay in responding,” Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, said by email. “I appreciate your patience.”

The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, in Columbus, declined to talk with Digital Privacy News.

In Newark, N.J., one of the state’s COVID-19 hotspots, officials at one hospital are rethinking its process for releasing belongings to the deceased’s families — temporarily putting dispersals on hold, one victim’s family member said.

“Normally, a hospital is going to give back the personal effects,” Douglas said. “In this case, because of the virus and there being no vaccine or therapeutics yet, I can imagine public-health officials may take the perspective that (belongings) should be destroyed because it’s a possible risk.

“If that’s the case, I would still, as a direct relative, want something in writing that says that the property was in fact destroyed,” he added. “These are probably issues not being thought of that much.”

Other Problems Feared

Still, privacy concerns can’t be ignored as public health currently trumps individual concerns. As a wide range of protocols are being relaxed, privacy surrounding the dead may be compromised and bring other problems, said Dale Larson, an expert in psychosocial issues in bereavement and end-of-life care.

“When you go to war, all of the normal protocols go out the window,” he told Digital Privacy News. “You’re trying to save lives.”

Larson, a clinical psychologist, is a researcher and professor of counseling at Santa Clara University in California. 

“We’re deep into uncharted territory here,” he said. “We never even imagined anything like this.

“This pandemic is like a major fire: One day you’re fine. The next day an entire town is gone. And it’s spreading across the country.

“There’s going to be huge ethical issues going forward,” Larson said.

What to Take to the Hospital

  • Driver’s license or other proof of identification.
  • Insurance cards, including Medicare.
  • A bathrobe, slippers, walking shoes, nightgowns, pajamas and basic toiletries.
  • Dentures, eyeglasses or contact lenses that should be kept in protective containers and labeled with your name.

Funeral Homes Move Warily

In the meantime, the pandemic is irrevocably transforming the entire system of care, from hospitals to funeral homes. 

“How we serve our families is dramatically different now than before this pandemic,” said Dana Lemon, a licensed funeral director and president of W.D. Lemon & Sons in suburban Atlanta.

“We don’t touch and hug as we did before,” she said. “It’s tough. Really tough.” 

Many families are postponing funerals and memorials — and employees limit dealings with family members when arranging services and at the gravesite, Lemon said. Funerals are live-streamed.

“People are understanding the seriousness,” she told Digital Privacy News.

‘Universal Precautions’

Once receiving a corpse, Lemon said her funeral home follows “universal precautions,” which call for treating all human blood and certain body fluids as if they’re infectious. Her staff followed those steps in recently handling an unconfirmed COVID victim, which two weeks later was confirmed.

“You pay attention to what you’re doing and do what you know is right,” Lemon said. “When we pick up the body, they give us a list of items accompanying the body — and the funeral home gives those back to the families.

“The biggest challenge with this virus is not the deceased; it’s the family who has been around the dead person prior to their passing,” she observed. “It puts us in jeopardy and makes us vulnerable to the virus.”

Many of the hospitals Lemon’s firm deal with already have procedures on releasing a victim’s belongings.

“Even with the volume, they have procedures with processing — and those procedures don’t change because the volume has increased.”

Tammy Joyner is a writer based in Atlanta.

Picture Credit: Sipa/AP

Common Questions

How can people retrieve their loved one’s belongings after they’ve died?

The hospital or medical institution should keep all personal effects for safekeeping and released only with a written and signed release from the legal next of kin.

Funeral homes often incorporate such formal releases of personal property in conjunction with the signed release of the remains to the funeral home. 

Since family members and loved ones cannot be with a COVID-19 victim once entering a hospital, can funeral homes help arrange the collection of the deceased’s belongings?

The funeral director helps families once death occurs. The acquisition of personal property from the place of death is a common practice of the funeral director. The cause of death should not impede on this goodwill practice. 

How do you protect someone’s identity once they’ve died?

The victim’s family should begin process of closing the deceased’s accounts as immediately as possible. A quick way is to freeze the deceased’s accounts, security and identity theft expert Robert Siciliano told Digital Privacy News.

A credit freeze seeks to prevent banks from accessing a person’s credit information. This also prohibits banks from reading credit reports and learning people’s scores and can ultimately keep criminals at bay.

It’s a lot quicker and more efficient than submitting information to the Social Security Death Master File, he said. Credit freezes usually take a few days versus a few months for the master file.

Tammy Joyner

Sources: (all links external)

  • AP News (link)
  • Daily Kos (link
  • National Funeral Directors Association: www.nfda.org
  • NFDA’s “After a Death Checklist” (link)