Here at The Mercury, we are in the business of answering questions. But at the moment all we can do is raise them about what is certainly one of the most consequential stories of the year.

So far, one person from Riley County has died in the coronavirus pandemic. All we know is that the person was a man in his 30s, and that he died May 12 at a hospital in Wichita. He tested positive for the virus at Manhattan’s Via Christi hospital in April before being sent on to Wichita. Officials said he had underlying health concerns, but that his death is listed as “coronavirus-related.”

Public health officials and hospital officials will give no more information on the nature of those health conditions. So we are left with lots of questions:

Did the man come to the hospital because of the coronavirus? Or did he come to the hospital because of his underlying health problems? Did he contract the virus at the hospital, or did he contract it prior to arriving there?

Bottom line: Was the coronavirus the cause of his death, or was his other health problem really what killed him?

This is a man in his 30s, not a person hanging on to life at 97.

You might think the actual cause of death of a person would be a matter of public record. It’s not.

In Kansas, a doctor who signs a death certificate can list several causes as well as any related conditions. Which causes get listed is a matter of judgment, but of course in this particular case we are told that there was at least a positive test confirming coronavirus. Only if there is some sort of criminal matter or if the death is unattended do police get involved, or is there an autopsy conducted. And only if it’s entered into a court case would the autopsy be public record, anyway.

A death certificate is not a public record. Only a person who has some standing, such as a relative or a person with some sort of legal claim, can obtain a copy.

So we can’t know for sure what cause was written down, and how it related to other causes. And so we’re left completely guessing why a person died.

This all seems unconscionable, given all the public-policy decisions and the impacts of those decisions that are being made to prevent deaths from the virus.

Certainly the person and his family are victims in a global pandemic, and they deserve compassion and support. We hope they’re receiving that. Our desire for public information is not intended to cause pain to those people.

But it seems to us that the cause of a person’s death ought to be public record, now more than ever.

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