Surveillance for Unexplained Deaths of Possible Infectious Etiologies During the COVID-19 Pandemic—Minnesota, 2020-2021

the UNEX Surveillance Team

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objectives: Surveillance systems for unexplained deaths that might have an infectious etiology are rare. We examined the Minnesota Department of Health Unexplained Deaths and Critical Illnesses of Possible Infectious Etiology and Medical Examiner Infectious Deaths (UNEX/MED-X) surveillance system,—a system that expanded postmortem surveillance for infectious diseases during the COVID-19 pandemic by leveraging standard (medical examiner [ME]) and expanded (mortuary) surveillance to identify COVID-19–related deaths. Methods: MEs, coroners, or morticians collected postmortem swabs from decedents with an infectious prodrome or with SARS-CoV-2 exposure before death but with no known recent infectious disease testing. The Minnesota Department of Health Public Health Laboratory used nucleic acid amplification, viral culture, and standard algorithms to test specimens collected postmortem for SARS-CoV-2, influenza virus, and other infectious pathogens. We reviewed UNEX/MED-X data from March 2, 2020, through December 31, 2021, and characterized decedents by location of swab collection (ie, ME or mortuary). Results: From March 2, 2020, through December 31, 2021, the UNEX/MED-X surveillance system received samples from 182 decedents from mortuaries and 955 decedents from MEs. Mortuary decedents were older than ME decedents (median age, 78 vs 46 y). Seventy-three mortuary decedents (40.1%) and 197 ME decedents (20.6%) had SARS-CoV-2 detections. The UNEX/MED-X system identified 212 COVID-19–related deaths, representing 2.0% of total COVID-19–related deaths in Minnesota. Eighty-nine decedents (42.0%) were from racial and ethnic minority populations, representing 6.1% more COVID-19–related deaths among people from racial and ethnic minority populations than would have been detected without this surveillance system. Practice Implications: Expanded and standard UNEX/MED-X surveillance builds capacity and flexibility for responding to emerging public health threats. Similar programs should be considered elsewhere as resources allow.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)325-332
Number of pages8
JournalPublic health reports
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024, Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health.


  • COVID-19
  • mortality surveillance
  • unexplained deaths

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


Dive into the research topics of 'Surveillance for Unexplained Deaths of Possible Infectious Etiologies During the COVID-19 Pandemic—Minnesota, 2020-2021'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this