Opioid overdoses are overrunning medical examiners
Dr. David Fowler’s staff is scrambling to keep up with the surging stream of corpses flowing through the doors.
In his 15 years as Maryland’s chief medical examiner, Fowler has seen natural disasters, train crashes and mass shootings. Heroinand cocaine-related homicides have plagued this city for decades. But he says he’s never seen anything that compares to the opioid epidemic’s spiraling death toll. As fentanyl, carfentanil and other deadly synthetic opioids seep into the illicit drug supply, it’s only getting worse.
The recent surge in drug overdose deaths has created an unprecedented nationwide demand for autopsies and toxicology examinations, said Brian Peterson, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, which accredits the forensic pathologists who perform death investigations.
Many medical examiners are working overtime and, in some places, they’re running out of refrigerated storage for bodies. When that happens, local officials typically borrow additional space at local funeral homes and hospitals, and in some cases, rent refrigerated trucks, he said. “Virtually every medical examiner’s office and toxicology laboratory in the U.S. has felt the impact of the opioid tsunami.”
In Maryland, homicides and fatal car crashes also are on the rise, creating far bigger caseloads for medical examiners than recommended by the national association. The concern is that performing more than the recommended limit of 325 autopsies in a year, in addition to other duties such as testifying in court, could result in errors.