A record 47,055 people died from drug overdoses in the US in Y 2014, according to the latest figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number is up 7% from Y 2013, spurred by large increases in heroin and opioid painkiller deaths.
Reports indicate overdoses continue to increase.
A recent report shows that the rising numbers of drug overdose deaths are adding to troubles of ME’s (medical examiner) and City Coroner offices, resulting in a shortage of places to store bodies and long delays in autopsies and toxicology testing.
The Connecticut ME’s office has considered renting a refrigerated truck to store extra bodies because its storage area has neared capacity at times.
In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office sometimes has to put bodies on Army-style cots in its refrigerated storage area because it runs out of gurneys.
The Hamilton County coroner’s office in Cincinnati, OH has a 100-day backlog of DNA testing for police drug investigations, largely because of increased drug overdose deaths.
ME’s and Coroners say overdose deaths are adding to a strain on their offices that already includes urban violence, inadequate facilities, budget problems and the shortage of forensic pathologists qualified to perform autopsies.
There are about 500 forensic pathologists in the nation, but at least 1,000 are needed, according to forensic science groups. A major cause of the shortage is that many medical students are opting for higher-paying jobs in regular pathology jobs in hospitals.
Medical Examiner and Coroner offices generally investigate all violent deaths in their jurisdictions, as well as suspicious and unexpected deaths that don’t occur in hospitals. The most notable changes resulting from inundated offices have been longer waits for families to learn how their loved ones died and delays in criminal investigations and court cases, MEs say.
Some ME and Coroner offices are so overworked that they risk losing accreditation, because their pathologists are on track to perform more than 325 autopsies a year, the limit in standards set by the National Association of Medical Examiners’ accrediting program.
In Los Angeles County, which has also seen a spike in fatal overdose deaths linked to fentanyl, Medical Examiner-Coroner Mark Fajardo announced in March that he was resigning, saying under staffing left him unable to do the job amid complaints of stacked bodies and testing backlogs.
The White House’s National Science and Technology Council has been looking into how to improve the nation’s Coroner and Medical Examiner system. A draft report released in April includes recommendations to increase investments in training pathologists and better report death investigation data needed to inform lawmakers and monitor public health.
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